3TFO: Broncos @ Panthers, Week 10
Denver’s record may not imply that they belong among the NFL’s elite teams, but don’t be fooled. All three of the Broncos’ losses have come against solid teams, and they’ve faced one of the toughest schedules so far. Add to that the fact only one team left on their schedule has a winning record, and that they’re in a division that’s underperforming as usual, and the Broncos’ playoff chances start to look pretty good. Denver’s visit to Charlotte leads off a slew of winnable games that could see the Broncos begin to separate from the rest of the AFC West.
They’ll be visiting a Panthers club fresh off its second win of the season and easily one of its best team performances. Although their playoff hopes have virtually disappeared, Carolina last week proved that this team shouldn’t be a blow off game for anyone. A home matchup against Denver creates the perfect opportunity for the Panthers to play the spoiler and begin to salvage what has been a disappointing 2012. Did we mention that John Fox gets to take on his former team for the first time?
Peyton Manning vs. Panthers Corners
It’s been quite a while since Peyton Manning threw those three interceptions in Atlanta, and questions regarding his ability to throw the ball have quickly evaporated. Maybe his arm strength isn’t all there yet, but he’s learned to deal with that — only twice this season has he had a QB rating below 105. His recent games have contributed heavily to his league-leading QB rating of 108.5. Though Manning leads the league in accuracy percentage on balls thrown over 20 yards in the air, he is also tied for the league lead with four interceptions on such throws.
With starting corner Chris Gamble lost to IR weeks ago, the responsibility of covering the opposition’s wideouts has been left to Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn. Norman as started every game this year for the Panthers and has performed admirably for a rookie drafted in the fifth round. The 35 receptions he’s given up are tied for 14th-most among cornerbacks, but he’s been making quarterbacks work for it — the longest reception he’s surrendered this year was a 29-yarder in Week 2. Munnerlyn has been solid on the outside, but he really shines in nickel packages when he moves into the slot. When covering the slot receiver, he gives up a reception once in every 14.7 plays, tops among corners with at least 100 coverage snaps in the slot. Forced into significant playing time for the first time in Week 5, nickel corner Josh Thomas has done well, allowing just 48 yards on the 13 balls thrown his way.
Will the Panthers’ Run Game have Success?
In Cam Newton’s rookie year, the Panthers enjoyed the highest average yardage per run at 5.5 yards per clip. In 2011, they are over a full yard per carry down on that number, and it’s shown in the production (or lack thereof) they’ve had on offense. Injuries have played their part, but neither Jonathon Stewart nor DeAngelo Williams are on pace for as many carries as they had last season. Stewart has been trending up — he’s forced more missed tackles in the past two weeks than the rest of the season combined, as he looks to have finally recovered from a nagging injury. Williams has been more concerning, though. His Elusive Rating (which factors in yards after contact and broken tackles) has declined every year since 2008, and his current rating of 23.5 is far below his best.
Denver’s linebackers will be largely responsible for holding the Panthers’ running backs in check. Von Miller might be best known for his pass rushing skills, but his ability to crash to the ball carrier is equally impressive. He has accrued 16 stops in the run game this year, compared with just a single missed tackle. Fellow outside linebacker Wesley Woodyard has recorded a defensive stop in the run game on 12.1% of his running plays, good for third among 4-3 OLBs. Filling in for the injured Joe Mays has been the duty of rookie Danny Trevathan and veteran Keith Brooking. While they haven’t been sensational, neither has embarrassed himself either, with just a single missed tackle between the pair on their combined 326 snaps.
Something has to Give
The incredible season of Ryan Clady has received plenty of coverage, but few have talked about his sophomore teammate on the other side of the line. Orlando Franklin has benefitted from ‘The Peyton Manning Effect’ as well, surrendering just two sacks, two hits, and seven hurries on the season. Though it’s not the league-leading 98.5 mark of Clady, Franklin’s Pass Blocking Efficiency of 97.1 is still good for seventh among tackles. Unfortunately for Franklin, he’ll have to contend with Charles Johnson, Carolina’s most dangerous pass rusher. In his past two games, Johnson has tallied five sacks and 13 pressures, propelling him to the top of the 4-3 DE Pass Rushing Productivity Charts with a score of 14.7. This matchup could be the most important factor in limiting Manning’s impact on the game, so look for Denver to roll backs or tight ends to his side if Franklin starts to struggle.