Super Bowl 50: Examining The Panthers

Hello, Bronco fans! How cool is it that your favorite team gets to play in Super Bowl 50?

It’s been amazing to watch how the team has enjoyed so much success ever since John Elway took over team operations. The Broncos have found a way to excel, even with question marks looming around the team each seasons. One only needs to look at the Broncos the past five seasons to see how much adversity the team has gone through, yet it has still made the playoffs all five years and reached two Super Bowls.

Now, we know about the adversity the Broncos have gone through this season, but if we can weather Tebowmania, the uncertainty of Peyton Manning coming back from a neck injury, multiple injuries that forced the Broncos to start career backups at many positions in 2013, suspensions to key players who violated the league’s drug policies, and all the attention that got focused on Manning chasing passing records – and that’s just the start of the list – then we shouldn’t have problems dealing with some of the uncertainties that surround our favorite team in Super Bowl 50.

I want to start by examining what the Carolina Panthers are all about and what that means for some of the matchups the Broncos will face.

Carolina’s offense

I don’t think I need to tell you a lot about quarterback Cam Newton. He’s coming off his best season yet, with 35 touchdown passes to just 10 interceptions and 132 rushing attempts for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns. His running ability has been widely known since he was a rookie, but where he has really improved is as a pocket passer. His pocket awareness is very good, he’s patient with the ball and he can fit throws into tight windows.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips wasn’t kidding when he said there is no NFL quarterback like Newton. Not only is he a threat as a runner and a passer, but he is a student of the game and wants to get better. He hasn’t reached the levels of film study like Peyton Manning has, but then again, hardly any QB has. But Newton’s desire to keep improving and his willingness to watch game film and learn from it is a major reason why he has gotten better as a quarterback and why I believe he’s already put himself among the elite in the game, regardless of the outcome of Super Bowl 50.

The Panthers have gotten plenty out of Jonathan Stewart, who has averaged 4.1 yards per carry on 242 rushing attempts. He comes out in short-yardage situations to make way for Mike Tolbert, but both are utilized on passing plays because they each excel in pass protection. The other running back is Fozzy Whittaker, who is seldom utilized but can be effective.

As far as how the Broncos defense is equipped to stop the run, the Broncos have held opposing running backs to just 3.3 yards per carry. Stewart, Tolbert and Whittaker are capable players but none of them are a threat to break a game open, so long as you play disciplined football, read your keys and tackle well. Newton, though, presents a tougher challenge not just because of his size, but because it’s hard to predict when he will run. The Panthers design plays to take advantage of what he can do. The good news for Denver is their best pass rushers are their better run defenders (although Malik Jackson isn’t as good as DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe and Von Miller), but at the same time, they have to watch Newton carefully and see where the ball is going to hold the Panthers to short gains.

The Panthers’ best receiving option is tight end Greg Olsen, who has been targeted 124 times and caught 77 passes. He presents a matchup problem for Denver’s cornerbacks, so it’s likely TJ Ward is going to draw Olsen whenever he goes out for a pass. Olsen isn’t as good at blocking, but will do it if called upon. The other tight end is Ed Dickson, who is the better blocker, but the Panthers don’t solely utilize them in a rotation. They will line up Olsen as a receiver and Dickson as either a receiver or to help with max pass protection. Dickson isn’t an elite player, but he can be a safety valve for Newton if nobody else gets open.

The top two receivers, Ted Ginn and Corey Brown, are similar to each other. Both are smaller receivers with good speed. Both can be utilized on running plays and their speed and shiftiness can create some issues. Ginn is the bigger threat to break the big play, and while he’s dropped nine passes, he’s far from the worst offender among wide receivers (Amari Cooper, who definitely has a higher ceiling than Ginn, dropped twice as many balls as Ginn this season). I suspect Ginn will draw Chris Harris on most plays, although Aqib Talib might take him on shorter routes. Otherwise, Talib will focus on Brown, who has quickness but isn’t as much of a downfield threat as Ginn. When the Panthers utilize a third receiver, they’ll either look to Jerricho Cotchery or Devin Funchess. Cotchery has been a steady presence, although he’s no big-play threat, while Funchess can get the big play, but has issues with dropping passes. You can expect Bradley Roby to match up with these guys on most downs they play. I suspect the Broncos will stick to man coverage on most downs, now that Harris should be healthy.

Finally, there’s the offensive line, whose strength lies in the interior. Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell have been excellent this year both as run blockers and pass protectors. They could be the toughest test yet for the Broncos’ interior linemen. Center Ryan Kalil has been steady, but his pass protection isn’t as good as that of the guards. That could present a matchup problem, but it’s likely you’ll see Norwell or Turner helping out as needed with double teams. Left tackle Michael Oher hasn’t been as good with run blocking, but he’s been steady with pass protection, although it remains to be seen if he can handle the likes of Miller and Ware. Right tackle Mike Remmers is the opposite of Oher: He’s good at run blocking but not as good at pass protection. When you look at the line, it’s the tackles and center who could be vulnerable, particularly because they haven’t faced strong pass rushers in most of their games this season, and that might force the Panthers to max protect on more downs.

The key for the Broncos is to find ways to limit the running game and force the Panthers to pass more often. When the Panthers do pass, they need to find ways to create pressure. That means on rushing downs, they’ll need to roll out Sylvester Williams or Vance Walker along with Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe, bring Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall in closer, keep an eye on who has the ball and limit those gains. If the Broncos take Stewart and Tolbert out of the equation as runners, the Panthers may find themselves having to throw the ball more often, because they don’t want to put too much of the running load on Newton. The more Newton is used as a runner, the more opportunities for Bronco defenders to tackle him and bring him down, which could take its toll on him.

When the Panthers do opt to pass, the Broncos need to stick to rushing four unless they see the Panthers preparing to max protect, in which case they should rush five or disguise a blitz. The idea is that you want to get to Newton before he has time to find Olsen open underneath or Ginn or Brown open downfield. If the Panthers pull back a running back and Dickson to max protect, that leaves them with just three receiving options, allowing the Broncos to blitz with Bradley Roby or perhaps T.J. Ward and hope that Newton can’t find Olsen in time. While Newton’s running ability allows him to escape the pocket, if he’s forced to throw, he’s not as effective and won’t be able to attack downfield. One thing worth noting is that Newton hasn’t thrown as well when under pressure. This is why it will be important for the Broncos to contain him in the pocket or force him to throw on the run, rather than allowing him to run in the open field. Newton hasn’t been pressured often, but teams who have done so have made him less effective.

If the Panthers don’t max protect on a passing down, rushing four with the usual cast could do enough to disrupt the line, particularly if they bring the pressure from around the end. When that happens, the defenders must be disciplined so that they can keep Newton in the pocket, rather than letting him escape it and potentially rush for yardage (even though throwing on the run isn’t where Newton does his best work). Keeping somebody like Brandon Marshall or Danny Trevathan to act as the spy can help, but whoever does take that role, the other needs to be covering the running back so Newton can’t check down.

What the Broncos must really focus on is limiting the big play. The Panthers have had 36 big pass plays (more than 25 yards) this season and the Broncos have given up 32 over the course of the season. If the Broncos can contain the likes of Olsen and Ginn, and hold Carolina’s RBs to around three to 3.5 yards per carry, they should get more three and outs or otherwise force the Panthers to punt.

Carolina’s defense

The Panthers have one of the better defenses in the NFL, but not for all the reasons you may think. There are several names who have come up regarding the Panthers’ defense, and while some are for real, others are not as good as they used to be. Let’s take a look at where the Panthers really excel and where some may be overstating the strengths.

When you look at the defensive line, the names most people recognize are Charles Johnson and Jared Allen. Johnson, though, has not been that good this season, having missed seven games with injuries and getting just one sack and seven tackles in nine games. Johnson does have two sacks in the playoffs, but he’s not a dominant player any longer. Jared Allen has been good but nowhere near the level he once was. He has two sacks and 27 tackles for the regular season and missed the NFC title game with a foot injury, although he will play in the Super Bowl and I wouldn’t count on him being limited. But Allen isn’t the biggest threat on the D-line, either.

The biggest threat on the Carolina defensive line is defensive tackle Kawann Short. He excels in both run stoppage and pass rushing – in fact, he’s one of the best in the NFL. He’s had 11 sacks for the regular season, added two more in the playoffs and has broken up four passes. Throw in Star Lotulelei, who is a very good run defender, and it’s going to be tough for the Broncos to get a lot from the run game up the middle.

While Ryan Harris and Michael Schofield have been the weakest links on the Denver offensive line, it’s the interior players who will get the bigger tests. Evan Mathis, Louis Vasquez, Matt Paradis and Max Garcia will be the ones most likely tasked with fending off Short, and they will draw Lotulelei often, too. I think the Broncos will have to double team Short on most downs (particularly passing downs) and leave Lotulelei in one-on-one matchups and hope for the best. Harris and Schofield won’t have an easy task matching up with Allen or Johnson, but they should be able to win the majority of battles if they play their technique well.

When the Broncos run the football, they could have their best success running toward the right end, because that is where Carolina has been weakest. Football Outsiders ranks Carolina’s defensive line 13th overall when teams rush around the right end. Carolina ranks first when teams rush to the left end, sixth when they rush up the middle and off either guard, or off right tackle, and seventh off left tackle. That could be good news for Ronnie Hillman, who’s had success when rushing around the ends, although he’ll have to go the right end most of the time. It’s definitely not a game in which you want Hillman running up the middle, though – that should be reserved for C.J. Anderson, although the Broncos will want to have him rush to the right, too. Ideally, the Broncos would get some production from running around the right end and, as the game progresses, try running up the middle or off guard.

The Broncos, however, will likely have to pass the ball to get drives going early, so it will be important to know which players are the best in coverage. Starting with the linebackers, you have Luke Kuechly, who can do everything well but particularly excels in pass coverage. He’ll be tasked with seeking out receivers who are running shorter routes and will likely draw tight end coverage. Thomas Davis is also good in every area, but his best trait is pass rushing, so you probably won’t see him drop into coverage on that many passing downs. Davis is coming off a broken arm and will play with a cast, which may limit him, but I would still treat him as a legitimate threat. When the Panthers have three linebackers take the field, Shaq Thompson gets most of those snaps. He’s had a solid rookie campaign, although he’s not yet at the level of Kuechly or Davis.

Then we come to the secondary, which was pretty strong for most of the season until a couple of key injuries weakened the group. Of course, we know how well Josh Norman has played this season – he doesn’t strike me as a true shutdown corner, but he’s very good in coverage and excels at disguising what he’ll do on a given play. He’s definitely comparable to Charles Tillman in his prime. The player in the secondary who gets overlooked is free safety Kurt Coleman, who does a good job providing help in coverage downfield. Norman and Coleman are the two defensive backs the Broncos should be most concerned with.

The rest of the secondary isn’t as much of a threat, although Roman Harper is a solid player who has broken up five passes this season. He’s not at the level of Norman or Coleman, but he’s definitely better than the other cornerbacks taking the field for the Panthers. When Carolina lost Charles Tillman for the playoffs, the secondary took a hit. Some will tell you Tillman wasn’t good, but that’s because they are basing it on how he played as the No. 1 cornerback for the Bears. His skills may have declined, but he played well enough this season to be a quality No. 2 CB.

But Tillman’s torn ACL, coupled with a leg fracture to third cornerback Bene Benwikere, meant the Panthers have had to rely on Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain to play alongside Norman. Finnegan remains an inconsistent player and McClain is not good at all. It’s not hard to figure out who Peyton Manning is most likely to pick on when he drops back to pass.

While Manning’s skill set has declined, as long as he remembers what his biggest strength is, he should be all right. His biggest strength is the one that doesn’t decline with age: The ability to read defenses and see what’s coming. He needs to be aware of where Kuechly and Norman are at all times and avoid targeting receivers in their area. Because Manning’s strength isn’t attacking downfield, that should limit Coleman to a degree. If you go back to the NFC title game, where Coleman really made Carson Palmer pay were the times Palmer tried attacking downfield, and Coleman saw the plays develop and was there to break up passes or get interceptions. If Manning takes short and intermediate routes in which receivers get open and away from Kuechly and Norman, he shouldn’t have to worry about Coleman entering the picture.

The big question will be how much the tight end gets involved. Kuechly and Davis are used frequently in covering the tight end, but there are a few things to keep in mind here. First, the Panthers haven’t faced top tight ends for most of the season, and the best tight end they faced, Jimmy Graham, had a 100-yard receiving game when the Panthers and Seahawks met in the regular season. Second, although Owen Daniels doesn’t rank among the elite tight ends, he’s been more effective as the season has progressed. The perfect example is the AFC title game, in which he faced a Patriots defense that has linebackers who are good in coverage, yet he still got open for two touchdown passes. It remains to be seen how Daniels will match up with Carolina’s linebackers, but given how well he has played lately, we should be cautiously optimistic about Daniels’ chances.

I would expect you’ll see Manning keep an eye on whoever comes onto the field as the third wide receiver, so don’t be surprised if Bennie Fowler, Cody Latimer and Jordan Norwood get several targets. As far as the star receivers go, it all depends on who matches up with Norman. The Panthers will likely assign Norman a certain side of the field and he’ll take either Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders, depending on who lines up where. I imagine Manning will hope to get Thomas involved early, but if Norman is covering him, it’s better to see if Sanders is open and force the Panthers to adjust.

Obviously, the Broncos need to avoid turnovers, because that’s the area in which the Panthers defense really thrives. Among Denver’s three playoff opponents, Carolina has the most combined interceptions and forced fumbles with 44 (24 interceptions, 20 forced fumbles), while New England had 32 (12 interceptions, 20 forced fumbles) and Pittsburgh had 31 (17 interceptions, 14 forced fumbles). The Panthers defense does a good job capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes, so avoiding turnovers will be crucial.

The Panthers pass rush overall, while very good, isn’t as strong as the other two teams the Broncos have faced in the playoffs. Football Outsiders ranks pass rushing units based on adjusted sack rate, which takes into account down, distance and opponent for the total number of sacks the defense has (in other words, the best pass rushes capitalize more often in situations in which sacks may be harder to get). The Panthers rank 11th in adjusted sack rate, but they trail behind Pittsburgh, who ranked seventh, and New England, who ranked second. (For the record, Denver ranks first in adjusted sack rate.)

So while the Panthers can get after the quarterback, they aren’t as good as the other playoff teams the Broncos faced, and they certainly don’t compare to New England. In fact, New England had the hands-down best pass rush next to Denver, so the Broncos have already gone up against the best and weathered the storm. As long as the Broncos contain Kawaan Short and play proper technique against Allen and Johnson, they should give Manning time to throw on most downs.

The main objective for the Broncos’ offense is to move the chains as often as possible and take what they can get in terms of yardage, rather than trying to break the big play. This does not just apply to the throws Manning attempts, but to any running back or receiver who gets open or finds space. You’ll remember that the Broncos dropped too many passes against Pittsburgh because they thought too much about the yards after the catch. They did better against New England, where the few balls that were dropped were passes that the Patriots contested. When they get open, they need to secure the ball first and worry about yards after the catch later. Even if it means the Broncos have to punt around their 40 or near midfield, they can at least pin the Panthers deep in their territory.

Whenever the Broncos do get into Panthers territory, they need to focus on avoiding turnovers, even if it means they have to kick a field goal when in the red zone. One of Manning’s issues with his early-season struggles was that he tried to create plays in the end zone when he didn’t have to. Better to get out of the pocket and throw the ball away, followed by kicking a field goal, than have an interception and come away with no points. Obviously, the Broncos need to take advantage of red-zone plays as much as possible, but they shouldn’t force the issue when they don’t have to.

Carolina’s special teams

We come to the area in which the Panthers have their biggest issues. Football Outsiders DVOA ranks the Panthers’ special teams units 23rd overall (Denver is ranked 14th). Carolina has below average special teams and this is where the Broncos could use this to their advantage.

Denver has a positive DVOA in punting, which Britton Colquitt critics may not expect. Carolina has a negative number in that department, though. In the regular season, Carolina’s Brad Nortman averaged 45.4 yards per punt, but his net average dropped to 39.8. while Colquitt averaged 43.6 yards per punt with a net average of 39.7. The net average is important, as that measures the distance of the punt versus how many yards it was returned. While Nortman is slightly better than Colquitt in terms of distance per punt, Carolina’s punt coverage isn’t as good. And given how well Colquitt has done in the playoffs, I am cautiously optimistic he can keep it going, and I am very optimistic that Denver’s punt coverage team will continue to excel.

The Broncos have the advantage in kicking. Brandon McManus has made 85.7 percent of his attempts in the regular season while Graham Gano has made 83.3 percent. McManus also rates better than Gano per Football Outsiders, but touchbacks might not come as often given that the Broncos will play closer to sea level. The Broncos’ kick return coverage will be tested more in this game, but given how the punt coverage unit has done, I believe the Broncos are up to the task.

It is true that the Broncos won’t have Omar Bolden, who had his best season as a return man despite missing multiple games with injuries. The good news is that Jordan Norwood has fared better as a punt returner in terms of taking care of the ball, even if he hasn’t broken loose for long returns. Andre Caldwell isn’t flashy, but he’s been smarter this year when it comes to knowing when to take the touchback and, when he does get a return opportunity, he simply takes what’s there and isn’t trying to create a big return. Safe plays might not be exciting, but you at least get better field position and keep the ball.

Meanwhile, Carolina has mostly relied on Ted Ginn for punt returns, with Fozzy Whittaker and Joe Webb splitting the kick return duties. Ginn hasn’t had a lot of punt return opportunities (just 27 for the season), while Webb and Whittaker have combined for 17 kick returns, and all three have made returns of at least 25 yards. The Broncos will have to be disciplined with the return game, but again, they’ve demonstrated patience most of the time and, while the Panthers have capable return men, they aren’t the biggest threats for a return TD. As long as the Broncos stay disciplined, they should limit the returns.

I will talk more about what I see from the Broncos tomorrow, but that gives you an idea of what to expect from the Panthers and how they measure up. They will be a team that will test the Broncos in nearly every area, but the Broncos should be up to the task as long as they execute, avoid turnovers and take advantage whenever they get great field position.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.