The Denver Broncos have shattered the record books on offense this season on their way to Super Bowl XLVIII where they will face off with the No. 1 defense of the Seattle Seahawks. A big part of their success all season long has been the breakout year of tight end Julius Thomas. After struggling with injuries early in his career, Thomas has emerged as a major weapon for Peyton Manning in the passing game as he presents major matchup issues wherever he lines up. For Denver to bring home a win in the 2014 Super Bowl, Julius Thomas will have to get loose on Sunday.
During the season, Thomas proved to be one of Manning’s favorite targets when Denver needed a big first down. he finished the season with 65 catches for 788 yards and set a team record for touchdown receptions by a tight end with 12. In two playoff games this season, he’s been counted on even more, hauling in 14 catches for 161 yards in wins over the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots to get the Broncos into the Super Bowl. He has earned Manning’s trust in the passing game and will be counted on regularly in their matchup against Seattle.
But the Seahawks boast the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL and have had plenty of success against elite tight ends this season. In three games against the San Francisco 49ers this season, including a win in the NFC Championship, Seattle held Vernon Davis to just seven catches on 11 targets (2.3 receptions per game) for 57 yards (19 yards per game) and just one touchdown. In two games against the New Orleans Saints this season, the Seahawks’ D held Jimmy Graham, arguably the best tight end in football, to just four catches on 15 targets for 50 yards and a touchdown. In the NFC Divisional Playoff, Graham was completely taken out of the game, recording just one catch for eight yards.
Seattle has been able to control tight ends thanks to the excellent play of the safeties, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Chancellor has the size and strength to physically separate tight ends from the football while Thomas has quickly become one of the best playmakers in the NFL on defense using his speed and ability to read and anticipate where a play is going. Together, they make life difficult for pass catchers over the middle of the field, including even the best tight ends.
Thomas, however, is used a little differently than Davis or Graham. What makes those other two so good is their ability to use their athleticism to stretch the field down the middle and out-run safeties. Many of their routes tend to be straight lines where they rely on being faster than the coverage. But Thomas is used more often underneath coverage on crossing routes and sit routes where he finds a hole in the zone and allowed to run after the catch, as shown by his 12.1 yards per reception average compared with 16.3 for Davis and 14.1 for Graham. Denver is content to take what the defense gives them, even if it means dropping it off to Thomas for a five-yard gain.
That patience will take away some of Seattle’s ability to create big plays in the secondary using their aggressiveness. While Denver will still take their shots down the field to Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, it will be Julius Thomas finding space to make catches and move the chains that will be the deciding factor for the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.