Good morning, Broncos fans! With tomorrow’s game dominating our thoughts, I thought it would be nice to post a preview of the game to generate some discussion. We’ve heard plenty about what the national pundits have to say, but let’s try to come to our own conclusions with a little deeper dive into personnel, key matchups and schemes. I’m going to split this preview into two parts, beginning with the Broncos’ offense vs. the Panthers’ defense.
Broncos’ Offense vs. Panthers’ Defense
Trevor Siemian has dominated this part of the conversation both locally and nationally, and for good reason. You know the story: he’s a second-year player; a seventh-round draft pick; a part time starter at a school not known for great football; and he threw more INTs than TDs in his college career. We know he will experience some growing pains, and it’s at least mildly frightening that his first NFL start will be against the fearsome front seven of last year’s Super Bowl runners-up, the Carolina Panthers. After a closer look, though, we can fairly easily identify some reasons why the Broncos’ offense could experience some success against the Panthers tomorrow night.
Here are the relevant depth charts for reference:
Starting up front the Broncos have apparently upgraded both offensive tackle positions over last year. The last time these teams squared off the Broncos started Ryan Harris at LT and Michael Schofield at RT. While Harris filled in admirably as the third starting LT on the season, and Schofield did play better in the postseason, both players were well below league average in their performances over the course of the season. Russell Okung, if fully recovered from injury, should represent a large upgrade over Harris on the left side. As for RT, Donald Stephenson is a little harder to evaluate at this point. He’s spent his time in Kansas City playing primarily LT, and was benched during the season last year. He appears very athletic, and much better-suited to play either RT or G. As the starting RT in Gary Kubiak’s zone running attack, the expectation is that he’ll perform much better than he did in KC, and with Schofield having set the bar pretty low last season, it’s very likely that Stephenson will surpass it.
On the inside C Matt Paradis and LG Max Garcia have another year under their belts, and theoretically they should be improved. Zone blocking requires the offensive line to function together as one collective organism, creating a synergistic effect opening up running lanes for the backs. Having shared hundreds of snaps side-by-side in 2015, I expect to see growth in both Paradis and Garcia, especially with respect to how they function together. Michael Schofield, having been moved inside to RG, has flashed at times in the preseason. He appears to better suited to play inside, where his limitations in pass blocking are less likely to be exposed, and where he can use his athleticism to get up to the second level and get a hat on a LB when asked to combo block.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Panthers’ front seven remains mostly unchanged, and just as scary. Kawaan Short, Star Lotulelei, rookie Vernon Butler, and Paul Soliai represent arguably the best DT rotation in all of football. At DE, the Panthers have a couple of playmakers in Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson, but unlike at DT, they lack depth behind them.
Behind that quality defensive line the Panthers have a VERY good LB group, anchored by All-World MLB Luke Kuechly and WLB Thomas Davis. At SLB they have the young, athletic, up-and-coming Shaq Thompson. These three guys can absolutely fly around the field, both against the run and the pass, and will represent another major challenge for the Broncos’ offense.
Easily the weakest spot on the Panthers’ defense is their defensive backfield. After unnecessarily allowing Josh Norman the leave in free agency, they find themselves starting a pair of rookies at the CB position in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley. On the back end they’ll start Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston. Drafted by the Eagles in the seventh round in 2010, Coleman has found a home on his fourth NFL team, and has developed into a good player. Boston is in his third season with the Panthers after being drafted by them in the fourth round in the 2014 draft. While the safeties appear functional, the two CBs are big question marks for this defense.
- Max Garcia, Matt Paradis and Michael Schofield vs. Kawaan Short and Star Lotulelei
- Andy Janovich vs. Carolina LBs
- Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders vs. James Bradberry and Daryl Worley
- Trevor Siemian vs. Gary Kubiak
Garcia, Paradis and Schofield will have all they can handle and then some inside. I expect to see some plays blown up by the Panthers’ interior DL. They will stuff some runs in the backfield, and they may wreak some havoc in the passing game as well. To counteract this the Broncos must effectively execute inside and outside zone runs employing double teams and combo blocks on the interior. Also, Siemian will really need to sell the boot action on zone runs. There’s nothing innovative about that approach; it’s pretty standard zone blocking scheme (ZBS). However, to set up success in the passing game it’s imperative that the Broncos can run the ball effectively on Thursday.
The secret to success in the running game might be a guy who didn’t play in the game the last time these two teams met: Andy Janovich. As I mentioned, in order for the ZBS to be successful the offensive line must function together as a single unit. The FB needs to be part of that unit as well. Janovich will need to read the blocks of the offensive line and let Kuechly, Thompson and Davis know he’s a force that must be accounted for as a blocker. Even if the offensive line executes perfectly, there will likely be one LB free to pursue the runner. Janovich will need to make sure the LB doesn’t get there, and if he does his job we could see the Broncos’ offense pop some good gains on the ground. I expect to see some FB on LB collisions tomorrow night, a sight once thought to be extinct here in the Mile High City.
Denver’s WRs have a huge advantage over the inexperienced CBs assigned to cover them on the outside. I expect Carolina will employ primarily zone looks defensively, because these cuddies can’t hang with the likes of Thomas and Sanders one-on-one. The Broncos will primarily try to get the ball to their receivers quickly on three- and five-step drops and let them do some work after the catch. They will also likely take a shot or two downfield, but I expect those to come off of play action and boot action, as a straight seven-step drop is likely to put Siemian under duress. If the Broncos can run the ball even modestly, and the schemes can buy some time for a WR to get behind Carolina’s young corners, we could see Siemian and Thomas or Sanders lay ’em down and smack ’em yack ’em. We should also see the return of some old staples to the Broncos’ passing attack in the form of the RB/FB in the flat and the TE/WRs on some intermediate crossing routes off of boot action. Siemian will need to be careful, though, as Kuechly in particular likes to bait QBs into throwing those flat routes so he can pounce on an INT.
The last Key Matchup, Siemian vs. Kubiak, requires some explanation. Gary Kubiak, as you well know, has a severe aversion to turnovers. It dominates his philosophy and serves as perhaps the single biggest factor in evaluating a QB’s performance (just ask Brock Osweiler and Mark Sanchez). Siemian watched while veteran Mark Sanchez literally fumbled away the starting job, and he also observed Peyton Manning rely almost solely on quick, short passes in 2015. Hopefully Siemian is willing to go against the at times overly conservative coaching philosophy of Kubiak and take some shots downfield when they are there for the taking, consequences be damned. If he isn’t, we could see more of the same from the last time these two teams faced each other, with too many three-and-outs and not enough first downs.
Ultimately, I think the Broncos will have a productive, if modest, day offensively. The defense they face is formidable, but I believe they can have enough success to win the game. In the next installment I’ll break down Carolina’s offense vs. Denver’s defense, special teams for both sides, and end with a predicted outcome. Until then, Go Broncos.