Earlier I posted my thoughts on the Broncos’ offense vs. the Panthers’ defense in anticipation of tomorrow night’s game. Now it’s time to take a look at what to expect when Carolina has the ball, as well as a brief thought about special teams. Just like in the first installment we’ll look at personnel, key matchups and schemes for both squads. Let’s get to it.
Panthers’ Offense vs. Broncos’ Defense
There’s no doubt that Denver’s defense was the biggest difference in the game when these two teams played last February. They absolutely dominated the Panthers’ offense, so much so that the Broncos won by two touchdowns with a very poor offensive performance. In all likelihood the game script won’t play out exactly that way again, but this remains the marquis matchup for the upcoming game.
The Panthers enter tomorrow’s season opener with the same starting offensive line they employed in Super Bowl 50. This is somewhat surprising as the Broncos defensive front had its way with these guys back in February. On the interior they are solid with LG Andrew Norwell, C Ryan Kalil, and RG Trai Turner all turning in good performances on the whole in 2015. However, their tackles are questionable, and both were badly exposed in the last meeting. LT Michael Oher is average at best and RT Mike Remmers is likely still wondering if he picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.
The Panthers have improved at other positions, however. If you remember, RB Jonathan Stewart was injured early in the Super Bowl after being taken down awkwardly by Derek Wolfe with about 7:12 to go in the first quarter. Stewart seemed obviously hampered for the rest of the game. Coming into tomorrow’s game, Stewart is 100% again and no doubt ready to make up for an underwhelming performance in February.
The Panthers’ receiving corps is also upgraded from the last time these two teams squared off. Kelvin Benjamin is back after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL. He represents a huge upgrade over Ted Ginn as the team’s primary target. Benjamin will be on a limited snap count, though, so he’ll have to make the most of his 25 or so plays. Also at WR, second-year man Devin Funchess will see significant playing time after being relatively quiet in the Super Bowl. Both Benjamin and Funchess stand 6’5″ tall and look more like TEs than WRs. Neither has remarkable speed, but their size could pose a problem. The very fast and wildly erratic Ted Ginn, Jr. and Corey aka “Philly” Brown round out the WR corps. Lastly, the very talented and always effective Greg Olsen is a big threat in the middle of the field.
Finally, that brings us to the ever controversial Cam Newton, who must play well to give the Panthers a shot. When last we saw him he played quite poorly and ultimately folded up into full self-preservation mode. Bottom line, though, the guy can play and will take over a game if given the opportunity.
Denver’s defense had more significant subtractions than additions this offseason. It will be interesting to see how much the losses of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan to free agency affect the defense. One of the reasons the team was comfortable letting Malik Jackson go was Vance Walker, who has since been lost for the season with a knee injury. That leaves LDE Derek Wolfe, NT Sylvester Williams and RDE Jared Crick as starters on the defensive interior. DE Billy Winn and NT Darius Kilgo figure to play significant snaps as well.
Little has changed on the edges, with Von Miller and Demarcus Ware anchoring their usual spots at OLB/DE. What will change will be Ware’s usage, as his advancing age and ailing back will dictate less playing time in 2016. By all accounts Ware is perfectly comfortable with the new arrangement. Behind them is another talented duo in Shane Ray and Shaqil Barrett, and rounding out the group is newcomer Dekoda Watson, who led the team in sacks during the preseason.
At inside linebacker the Broncos will showcase Brandon Marshall, fresh off of signing a new contract, and new starter Todd Davis. Davis has looked good in spot duty the last two seasons, but filling Trevathan’s shoes is a tall order. Davis looks to be an effective starter, but it’s likely the Broncos will miss Trevathan’s presence, particularly in the passing game. Youngsters Zaire Anderson and Corey Nelson round out this group. I expect we’ll see one of them replace Davis in sub packages on passing downs. I hope to see Anderson play some, as he really flashed in August. <Insert “nose for the ball” or similar scouting cliche here>
The defensive backfield for the Broncos will be as stout as ever, with the No Fly Zone still intact. It remains to be seen whether CB Aqib Talib is back in game shape, but even if he isn’t, the Broncos are in good shape here. In addition to Talib, CB Chris Harris, Jr., CB Bradley Roby, SS T.J. Ward and FS Darian Stewart all enter the season healthy and ready to rock. CBs Kayvon Webster and Lorenzo Doss and safeties Justin Simmons and Will Parks round out a truly remarkable group of DBs.
- Broncos Interior DL vs. Panthers’ Interior OL
- Demarcus Ware/Shane Ray/Shaq Barrett/Dekoda Watson vs. Michael Oher
- Aqib Talib vs. Kelvin Benjamin
- Wade Phillips vs. Cam Newton
As previously noted, the Broncos took a hit this offseason with the losses of Malik Jackson and Vance Walker on the defensive interior. This also happens to be the strength of the Panthers’ offensive line, and you can bet they’ll attempt to exploit this matchup. I expect the Panthers will have some success running the ball up the middle, and the Broncos will have to figure out a way to stop it. To do that I think the Broncos will employ some run blitzes in the A- and B-gaps from ILBs Marshall and Davis, as well as from safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart. This approach will expose them somewhat on the back end, but with the cover guys the Broncos have they should be able to mitigate the risk.
Why did I list everyone but Von Miller and Mike Remmers with respect to the Denver edge rushers vs. the Carolina OTs, you ask? Is it because Remmers has gotten better? Is it because Von Miller will get complacent now that he’s signed a big contract? Is it because I love typing question marks ever since my former gig running a teleprompter on Channel 4 News in San Diego? No, it’s because I believe Ron Rivera and Mike Shula will scheme to slow down Miller with help on the right side from TEs and RBs, either with “chips” or full-blown double teams. This should leave plenty of one-on-ones on the left side, and the edge rushers not named Von will have to take advantage. I believe they will, and we should see Denver generate plenty of pressure from the edges on Newton yet again.
Talib, if healthy, is an excellent matchup for Denver against Kelvin Benjamin or Devin Funchess. He’s a big, physical corner who will use his hands and big body give these guys fits. If both big WRs are on the field together, I expect to see Talib on one of them and Bradley Roby matched up on the other. If Harris lines up against Ted Ginn, this would leave either Ward or Stewart on Greg Olsen, and I think across the board this bodes well for Denver. Obviously they won’t match up like this on every down, but when it comes to man coverage I think this mostly what we’ll see.
That brings us to Wade Phillips vs. Cam Newton. Round 1 of this matchup resulted in a win by knockout for our favorite defensive coordinator, and while much of the personnel remains the same, I think Phillips will have to mix up the approach some to experience similar success. The Panthers will likely look to screens, draws and quick passes to slow the Broncos pass rush. These are not advanced concepts, but they are tried and true and the Panthers failed to do much of anything to slow it down in the last meeting. They’ll likely try to get back to basics a little bit this time.
Additionally, the Panthers will be desperate to find an answer to Phillips’s “Green Dog” blitzes, in which defenders read and react to their assigned man (usually a FB or TE) by getting after the QB if said man stays in to block in a max protect scheme. Theoretically the Panthers could counter these Green Dogs by sending those extra blockers out on routes, particularly delayed routes where the TE or FB give a look like they intend to block, but then bust out into a short pass route. In order to prevent this, Phillips may look to disguise his blitzes even more than usual, and fake blitzes before dropping potential pass rushers back into coverage to confuse Cam and force him into throwing to the wrong colored jerseys. In conjunction with various looks at blitzes and fake blitzes, I expect Phillips to incorporate some zone coverages as well. It will be important to get to Newton quickly, just like last time, but I think the Broncos will employ somewhat different methods to get the job done.
It’s too early to speculate on the effectiveness of the return and coverage units for each team, as so often these units are comprised primarily of young players and newcomers. While they will no doubt have an impact on the game, I haven’t seen enough to have any idea what to expect at this point. Therefore, this will be a short discussion. In fact, it will be essentially one (long) sentence, which is as follows: If the Broncos are too conservative offensively, they will likely place too much pressure on their inexperienced rookie punter, which could ultimately result in some bad kicks and nullify any advantages that conservative offense provides in terms of field position.
So, what does all this mean? I think it means we’ll see two good defenses once again setting the tone of the game, but not at the same dominant level as we did in February. The offenses will make a little more noise in this one, and will score a few more points than the last time around. At the end of the day, I’m going with a score of 20-16 in favor of the hometown Denver Broncos.
I’ll chime in on Friday with some thoughts on the message board. I can already feel the nervous energy building, which means the beers will be drunk at breakneck speed, but don’t worry. I’ll be taking the train. And to anyone still panicking about the upcoming season, get a hold of yourself.
Until next time, Go Broncos.