In continuing my look at Super Bowl 50, I wanted to focus on the Broncos this time around.
My focus is going to be more about particular players, including obvious candidates and a few who might get overlooked in terms of the impact they could have on the game.
I’ll start with the offense and work my way to the defense, starting with the most obvious candidate for debate, given how he’s fared this season.
Peyton Manning: We all know that this has been a lousy season overall for Peyton, after he had three straight seasons of quality play (although he wasn’t sharp in the final few games of the 2014 season). Examining what Peyton has done throughout this season, I see him as a quarterback who started the season thinking he could continue doing what he has always done, tried to adjust his methods when things didn’t go well to start, his adjustments made things worse over time, but once he was sidelined, he came to terms with the fact he just couldn’t do everything the way he wanted.
The first two games of the season, one might have been forgiving because the Ravens had mostly everyone healthy and it was his first game under a new offensive scheme, and the Chiefs had a quality defense even with Sean Smith out on suspension. Against Detroit and Minnesota, the first two games in which the pistol was implemented, he was at least adequate, but that changed against Oakland and Cleveland in Weeks 5 and 6, in which he was arguably worse than he was in the first two weeks. The Cleveland game was the most alarming, in which Karlos Dansby had his way with Peyton.
Whatever adjustments Peyton tried to make during the bye week seemed to work against Green Bay, but then we saw the tale of two halves (poor first half, good second half) against Indianapolis, though he really wasn’t the number one reason the Broncos lost the game (the defense was). Against Kansas City at home, though, that was one of those times in which it is correct to say that Peyton lost the game and the only way to characterize Peyton’s play that day was “he sucked.”
We then learned that Peyton was injured, and when you have a QB in decline, an injury only worsens things, particularly if he’s facing a quality defense (which Kansas City had). Thus he sat out the next six games and didn’t take the field again until the Broncos were struggling against San Diego and Gary Kubiak figured it was worth seeing what Peyton could do.
It was that point that I believe reality had sunk in for Peyton, that he could not have the offense tailored to do the things he liked to do in his prime and that he needed to compromise more than he had been willing to earlier in the season. The Broncos started one offensive play in the pistol against San Diego, but Peyton changed it to a shotgun play, and after that, you never saw the pistol again. I doubt it’s coming back for the Super Bowl. Also, while Peyton’s throws have not been consistently good, he’s done a better job avoiding his propensity for wanting to fit throws into tight windows. He’s had two near interceptions, but Emmanuel Sanders came through on both, breaking up one would-be pick against Pittsburgh and plucking another ball away from Malcom Butler for a reception. Otherwise, he’s mostly made the right decisions, even if not all of his throws have been where a receiver could get to them.
As we have seen, though, Peyton’s ability to diagnose what a defense is going to run has become more useful now that he’s not trying to force issues. Prior to his injury, he’d see things develop but then tried doing what worked for him in his prime, and the end results were not pretty. Since his return, he’s been more willing to take what the defense has given him. That has at least allowed him to minimize his mistakes, even though his overall play has been average to mediocre.
I’ll talk more about Peyton’s career overall later this weekend, but as for what to expect from him in the Super Bowl, we should simply ask for him to take whatever the Panthers defense gives him and not try to be “vintage Peyton.” That he seems to be at peace with himself and where he’s at tells me he won’t try to be the latter. It’s just a matter of ensuring he keeps the former in mind, particularly against a defense that has generated plenty of turnovers, and to especially remember that Luke Kuechly is many times better than Karlos Dansby.
Evan Mathis: Good fortune smiled upon the Broncos when the Eagles cut Mathis following a contract dispute and he chose to play for Denver. It took him a while to get up to speed, thanks in part to an ankle injury, but he’s been good down the stretch. As Pro Football Focus has noted, though, Mathis has been a good run blocker but not as good with pass protection. That means he’s got a tough task ahead of him Sunday, as he’ll likely draw the Panthers’ best defensive lineman, Kawann Short.
Should the Broncos decide to pass the ball early in hopes of forcing the Panthers to adjust and open up the run game, Mathis is going to have to play at his best to keep Short in check, or the Broncos will have to double team him. I’ve advocated the idea of double teaming Short because he is so good at rushing the passer, but whether it’s one-on-one or double-team situations, Mathis is going to be tested far more than he has been this season.
Demaryius Thomas: Thomas hasn’t been terrible this year, but he hasn’t been quite at the level some people expected him to be. After three straight seasons with double-digit touchdowns, Thomas scored just six touchdowns in 2015. Part of it came from the Broncos’ struggles with the quarterbacks, but plenty of it fell on Thomas’ shoulders (the New England regular-season game stands out in particular).
Two years ago, though, when the Broncos faced the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, Thomas was one of the few who played like the game meant everything to him, despite a shoulder injury. It’s that type of play I’m sure everyone would love to see from Thomas again. Early on, we might not see a ton of production from him if Josh Norman is following him around, but as the game progresses, and if the Broncos can get production from other receivers, that would force Norman to cover somebody else and could open the door for Thomas. And while I wouldn’t count on Thomas winning every matchup with Norman, just winning one or two matchups against Norman early on could go a long way to Thomas having a great game.
Sylvester Williams: You didn’t see Williams in on a lot of snaps against the New England Patriots, but there’s a reason for that: The Patriots didn’t run the ball often this season. Against the Patriots, Williams played just 20 percent of the snaps. That had nothing to do with his performance during the season or the week before, but because rushing the passer isn’t his specialty. He played far more snaps against the Steelers in the playoffs (44 percent) because the Steelers ran the ball on more downs.
Given that the Panthers run the ball effectively, you can bet on Williams seeing plenty of snaps again. He’ll be tasked with facing the interior of the Panthers’ line, the stronger part of the line, so he’ll have a tough task ahead of him. He hasn’t had a lot of tackles this season, nor do I expect him to get many in Sunday’s game. But he has the important task of occupying linemen so that others can clean up. If he can win one-on-one matchups early on, he could force the Panthers to adjust. And if other players, notably Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson, can win their matchups early, he could find opportunities later in the game as the Panthers focus more on the likes of Wolfe and Jackson.
Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall: Speaking of the run defense, here’s two players who are going to need to be alert whenever the Panthers run the football. That’s because they’ll be the ones who will need to watch how the plays develop and get to whatever holes Carolina’s offensive line creates, to minimize the yards the running backs get.
There are some previews I have read which believe these two players aren’t really that good at stopping running backs, but I think these writers are underestimating what they can do. With that said, they are going to face one of their biggest tests, because the Panthers use so much misdirection with the running game. That means Trevathan and Marshall will have to be disciplined and read their keys to know where to be as the play develops. Most of all, they’ll need to tackle well. Do that and they can be instrumental in forcing the Panthers to throw the ball more than they would like.
Josh Bush: The injuries to David Bruton Jr. and Omar Bolden have meant more snaps for Bush. While he’s not at the level of Bruton, he’s been decent enough when called upon to be a third safety. However, it’s likely you’ll see him more often in the Super Bowl as I would expect the Broncos to limit Darian Stewart’s snaps to an extent (even though I expect Stewart will start).
Against the Steelers, Bush played 48 percent of the snaps, with Stewart playing 86 percent (T.J. Ward played every defensive snap), which shows not only how much the Broncos will sometimes roll out a third safety, but that they wanted to give Stewart a breather for a few downs. Against the Patriots, Stewart left the game midway with an injury, taking 55 percent of the snaps for the day, while Bush played 84 percent. Stewart’s injury did play a part in Bush’s increased playing time, but take that away and Bush was still likely to see the field a lot.
Bush’s main responsibility will be providing safety help as needed, rather than taking a one-on-one matchup. A big reason why the Broncos seem comfortable with him on so many snaps is they have the cornerbacks who can win one-on-one matchups much of the time and they don’t need the free safety to provide help on every play. At the same time, Stewart’s injury may mean the Broncos won’t want to overwork him, so Bush is going to be out there quite a bit and he’ll need to be at his best.
Kayvon Webster: When David Bruton Jr. was lost for the season with a broken leg, the Broncos lost one of their best special teams players. Enter Webster, who has come up big several times on punt coverage in the playoffs.
Against Pittsburgh, Webster swatted what would have been a ball bouncing into the end zone for a touchback so his teammates could down it at the 3-yard line. He also got into the head of those tasked with punt returns, delivering a hit when Markus Wheaton failed to signal for a fair catch on one punt and causing him to back off another, allowing the Broncos to down it deep in Pittsburgh territory. Against New England, he came through again with another punt that might have been a touchback, were it not for him downing the ball around the 5-yard line.
Consider that the Panthers have had very good field position for the bulk of their offensive drives this season and you know why the Broncos’ punt coverage unit will need to be in top form. Webster has been one of the unsung heroes in the Broncos’ two playoff wins thus far. If he can down yet another punt deep in Panthers’ territory or get inside the head of Ted Ginn on returns, such play could go a long way to deciding the outcome of Super Bowl 50.