Key Matchups: Broncos Defense vs. Panthers Offense
It has been nearly two full weeks since a meaningful football game has been played and we are now just one day away from the biggest game of the year, Super Bowl 50. The teams have completed their practices and are now mentally preparing themselves for the showdown coming on Sunday. After a week chock full of speaking with the media and answering every question imaginable under the sun, the players now must calm their minds and focus solely on the task at hand. For many players this will be their last chance to play for a championship. It is not an easy task to reach the pinnacle of your respective sport and this is a moment that each of these players will remember forever. While the Broncos and Panthers each go through their final preparations we will take one last look at the key matchups that will play pivotal roles in this game. Last week I previewed the Broncos offense vs. the Panthers defense. Today we will look at the Panthers top-ranked scoring offense vs. Denver’s dominant defense.
1. LB Danny Trevathan vs. QB Cam Newton
There is no secret to why the Panthers have been so successful offensively this season, particularly with a subpar receiving corps. The answer is Cam Newton. More specifically, it is the progression of Newton as a passer. Newton has always been a physical specimen, standing 6’5” and weighing about 250 pounds, he is the size of a defensive end with better speed than most running backs and hands the size of frying pans that almost never let go of the football. This makes him a nightmare when he decides to run the ball, but this season he has been doing a lot more throwing, and making a lot better decisions when he does. Newton was tied for second in the NFL in touchdown passes with 35 against just 10 interceptions. He also added 10 more rushing touchdowns, pushing his total touchdowns to 45. The Panthers as a team scored 54 offensive touchdowns this year, meaning Newton was responsible for all but nine of the team’s offensive scores. This is by far the highest percentage of scores for a team by one person in the league. One might think that because Cam is such an integral part of the Carolina offense that if you can stop him, you will probably win the game. This is probably true, however stopping the likely future NFL MVP is a lot easier said than done.
A big reason Carolina is so successful offensively is because of the variety of plays they throw at a defense. With various motions, read-options, triple options, quarterback runs, misdirection plays and all the different formations they run the Panthers do a terrific job of keeping defenses off balance and making them think rather than just reacting. They also ran the ball a league-high 25.9% of the time on first down, which puts them in a lot of medium yardage situations on second and third down. All of these factors add up to create an offense that is very efficient when they run the football, averaging 4.3 yards per carry, meaning they can keep the chains moving. And with the plethora of running plays they have at their disposal, once they notice the defense sitting down in the box, they open up the field with a deep ball to one of their speedy wide receivers. This offense operates best when they force the defense to slow down just a step and that will be the biggest challenge facing the Broncos on Sunday.
Denver loves to play an attacking style of defense that puts pressure on the opposing team. They did it against New England in the AFC Championship Game to a nearly flawless degree, but the Panthers run a very different offense than the Patriots do. The first task will be to neutralize the run game as best they can, which again, is not easy task. Because of all the variations Carolina uses in their rushing attack defenses have a hard time attacking strong to the ball because they don’t always know where the ball is or where it is going. Inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall will be the keys to slowing the run game as they will need to make good reads and then attack downhill to make the tackle. I imagine that at various times the Broncos will employ a quarterback spy to both account for Newton on option plays and on passing plays in case he scrambles. As they have done all year, the defense will likely not stick just one player on Newton all game long, but I can see Trevathan getting a good amount of those assignments. He runs the best out of all Denver’s linebackers and still has enough size, 6’1”, 230 lbs, to be able to take Newton down in the open field.
There is clearly no easy way to stop this Panther’s offense. The run game is too diverse to be able to completely shut it down and Newton is too big and too talented to be neutralized for a full 60 minutes. Denver’s inside linebackers will be the keys to slowing him down though. If they can keep Newton from scrambling and extending plays when they pass while also being stout against the run they will have the best chance of any team all season to beat the Panthers.
2. S T.J. Ward vs. TE Greg Olsen
When the Panthers throw the football there is one guy Cam Newton looks to on almost every play, tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen not only leads the team in catches and receiving yards, he has over 30 more catches than the second player on the team and over 360 more receiving yards than the next guy on the list. He is far and away Newton’s favorite target and he will be vital in how successful the Panthers are on Sunday. Olsen has been in Carolina ever since Newton was drafted and the two have developed quite the report with one another. Excluding Newton’s rookie season, Olsen has caught at least 69 passes for at least 814 yards each season they have played together. Olsen has gone for at least 77 catches and 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons, proving he is only becoming more valuable as Newton progresses. Olsen is a smart player who understands coverages and how to get open underneath, particularly against zone coverage. It is not just in the passing game that he is valuable, though; he is also a terrific run blocker. This allows the Panthers to run pass plays and run plays out of the same formations without changing personnel. Outside of Newton, Olsen is the most valuable piece of this offense and slowing him would go a long way on Sunday.
Trying to stop Greg Olsen will be likely a squad of Broncos, but the most important will be T.J. Ward. Ward was instrumental in slowing down Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship Game and it wasn’t until Ward left the game with an injury that Gronkowski was able to come alive. Matching the 5’10” Ward on the 6’5” Olsen may seem like a mismatch, but because Ward plays with such tenacity and physicality he has actually been defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ go-to guy when covering opposing tight ends. I would also expect a fair amount of double teams throughout the game at various times as the Broncos try to take Olsen away in key moments. As the Broncos have been doing throughout the playoffs, switching coverages and throwing different looks at Newton regularly will hopefully slow down his reads enough to disrupt the play. This is another reason Ward is so good against tight ends. His physicality can disrupt timing on passing routes, forcing Newton to hold the ball longer than he wants to.
The biggest factor in this matchup however, is going to be Ward’s health. There is no question the Broncos defense is better with Ward on the field. His teammates described him as their “Tasmanian Devil” because of how much energy he brings, but he has been dealing with an ankle injury since late November and was forced to leave the AFC Championship Game after re-aggravating the injury. Ward has used the two weeks off to rest and rehab the ankle and is expected to start in the Super Bowl, but if he reinjures the ankle and is forced to miss any extended period of time that could be a problem for the Broncos. With backups David Bruton and Omar Bolden already on injured reserve, keeping Ward healthy throughout the game will be big for Denver.
3. OLB DeMarcus Ware vs. OT Michael Oher
Coming into the season the Panther offensive line was not expected to be any good at all. They had a rough year last season and did not make any major changes other than adding Michael Oher, which was not viewed as a significant upgrade. Instead the Panthers line has far exceeded expectations and helped pave the way for the second best rushing offense in the NFL. Oher has been solid at left tackle, not exceptional, but good enough to not be a glaring weakness. Because the Panther’s offense is so run-central, it does take a lot of pressure off the line. Carolina also uses a lot of six- and seven-man protections which gives a lot of help to the linemen and it never hurts when you have a quarterback who can scramble when the pass protection does break down.
All of that will be put to the ultimate test this Sunday though when Oher and company face the best pass rushing team in the league in the Broncos. DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller absolutely destroyed Tom Brady and the Patriots offensive line two weeks ago and will be hoping for a repeat performance this weekend. But given the vast differences between the Panthers and Patriots offenses, getting the same kind of pressure on Cam Newton will be a whole different animal. The Broncos rushers need to be smart as they rush Newton because if they give him open rushing lanes, he will take them. This is especially true when rushing off the edge. If Ware comes with a speed rush but Oher is able to steer him behind Newton, when Newton steps up he will have the entire left side wide open for him to run. These lane assignments will be the most important part of the Broncos pass rush. When the Panthers throw the ball, they like to hit it for big plays. This means the Newton is often standing in the pocket longer than most other passers. If the Broncos rush just four, they should have plenty of people in coverage to stay with their receivers, giving the pass rushers more time to get to Newton. This is especially true if the Panthers max protect, leaving just three receivers to run routes. They key here will be whether or not the pass rush can contain Newton and keep him from breaking the pocket and extending the play.
The Panthers receivers are not an overly talented group and depend on big plays in the passing game set up by a successful rushing attack. Given the talent and depth in the Broncos secondary, staying with their marks in coverage should not be a big problem, but they must stay disciplined. Newton will break the pocket at some point and make a play with his legs. He’s too good not to break away once or twice, but the key will be solid open field tackling when he does break the pocket and the amount of times he is able to escape. If he can run freely with regularity, it could be a long day for the Broncos defense. However if the Broncos employ a rush like they did earlier this season against the Packers, where the rushers are more concerned with keeping the quarterback in the pocket than they are actually sacking him, this could bode well for a defense that boasts the best pass defense in the league. Newton has not had to hold the ball for extended periods of time in the pocket too much this season and if the Broncos can force him to make tougher decisions with his arm instead of his legs, they may be able to rattle him a bit and force him into some bad decisions.
Reports out of the last two Broncos practices say that Peyton Manning looks the best he has all season. I try not to read too much into reports like this because it is just practice, but if Manning really is healthier than he’s been all year, good things could be coming for the Broncos offense. What if Manning’s foot injury was the best thing that could have happened to him? What if the injury provided him with the necessary rest during the year to be ready for this game? He did not have to absorb the normal wear and tear of a full 16 game season and now has the benefit of having two bye weeks in the last four, giving himself plenty of time to rest and recover from any soreness. The Broncos missed on a few deep balls against the Patriots two weeks ago, and some were not very far off. If these two weeks helped Manning regain some timing with his receivers we could see more deep balls this Sunday than anyone expects.
Thomas Davis is listed as probable for the Super Bowl after breaking his arm in the NFC Championship Game. This is a guy that has come back after three ACL tears to play some of the best football of his career, and now he will play in the biggest game of his life with a metal plate holding his arm together. The determination and perseverance, not to mention ability to play through pain, is something you can’t help but admire, but the real question is how he will hold up. The Broncos have said they plan to test Davis early and often on Sunday and how he responds could be telling for how the rest of the game will go.
Both teams have a chance to make history on Sunday. For the Broncos, they can cement Peyton Manning’s legacy and bring a third Super Bowl ring to the Mile High City. For the Panthers, they have a chance to prove to the world how talented they are and possibly begin a changing of the guard in NFL supremacy. Two teams built on strong defenses, lead by larger-than-life quarterbacks and driven by an unquenchable thirst for a Super Bowl trophy. Only one team will walk away victorious on Sunday night, but what both teams have accomplished to get to this point is a victory in itself.
Lee Dudek is a staff writer for the Denver Broncos page. Follow him on Twtter @RealLeeDudek.