What to watch for when Denver has the ball
The marquee matchup of Super Bowl 50 is the Panthers’ offense against the Broncos defense, with Denver’s defense, in particular, viewed by many as the pivotal unit in this entire game. However, often times in Super Bowls it is the undercard—the less heralded units—that have the telling impact on the destination of the Lombardi Trophy. On Sunday, that will be the matchup between the Broncos’ offense—led by Peyton Manning—against Luke Kuechly and the Carolina Panthers’ defense.
Here we will see who has the edge in each facet of this matchup, and how that could determine the outcome of the game this Sunday in California.
(Editor’s note: Be sure to also check out Sam Monson’s article on what to watch for when Carolina has the ball.)
Broncos’ rushing attack vs. Panthers’ run defense
The Broncos’ ground game is the key to their offense, with the acute mind of Peyton Manning getting them into good plays against the fronts they are facing. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson will be put in as good an opportunity to succeed as possible against the Panthers this Sunday. For the full season, the Broncos’ offensive line has been a subpar unit, but it has played some of its best football over the closing weeks of 2015. Evan Mathis is still one of the league’s elite run-blocking guards, and Matt Paradis is capable of some excellent plays as a run blocker that, in concert with Mathis, could help spring some pivotal runs.
The Panthers’ run defense, as a unit, is strong, but much like the Broncos’ ground attack, it is keyed by two star players in the middle. If Mathis and Paradis can work in combination to contain Kawann Short and Luke Kuechly, Denver will have the opportunity to control the tempo of the game and keep the dangerous Carolina offense on the sideline.
Broncos’ pass protection vs. Panthers pass rush’
The loss of Jared Allen blunts the Panthers’ pass rush somewhat, but the Broncos will still have their hands full trying to slow down a talented and diverse Carolina front. Containing Kawann Short will once again be key, with Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez needing to be at their best to prevent Short from producing the kind of destructive displays that have seen him rack up five or more pressures in five of his last seven games.
Off the edge, the Broncos surrendered a highlight-reel type of game to Oakland’s Khalil Mack earlier this year, but the Panthers don’t boast any pass rusher of that kind of talent to threaten Peyton Manning with a similar kind of performance. Pair that with Peyton Manning’s rapid release time, and the Broncos should hold the balance of power to keeping Manning relatively clean this Sunday. Manning has only been pressured on 31.1 percent of his dropbacks so far this postseason, but has been sacked four times. Unless the Panthers can disrupt the release of Manning’s receivers, the Carolina will have to maximize their opportunities to take Manning down, as his speedy release will help to keep them at bay for most of the game.
Broncos’ passing attack vs. Panthers’ pass coverage
The evolution of Peyton Manning from the league’s premier quarterback to a game-manager has been one of the stories of the season, and will be so again in Super Bowl 50. Even 12 months ago, we would have been salivating at the matchup of Peyton Manning against the duo of Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman; this Sunday, we will look on with keen interest at how Manning avoids these two and minimizes their impact on the game.
Manning’s decision-making and accuracy over the middle of the field has been suspect this season (six TDs, 10 INTs over the middle of the field) and Kuechly will surely take advantage of those errant passes—just as the likes of Karlos Dansby did earlier in the season. Outside is where Manning’s opportunities will present themselves. The late-season injury to Charles Tillman has exposed the soft underbelly of the Panthers’ secondary; as strong as Josh Norman has been this season, there are plays to be made away from him, with Robert McClain surrendering 143 yards and two touchdowns as the most-targeted cornerback in the playoffs so far. Will the Panthers choose to match up Norman on Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders? Will the Panthers stick with left and right corner? The onus will be on whichever receiver—Thomas or Sanders—is not being covered by Norman to make the plays that could help spark a Super Bowl victory for the Broncos.
Panthers have the edge
Taking into account every matchup in play when Denver has the ball, the Panthers hold the weight of power in this matchup, but how Carolina’s secondary copes with matching up against Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders could ultimately swing the balance of power towards the Broncos just enough.
Josh Norman has had an excellent season, but he can only cover Thomas or Sanders at any one moment, and if the Panthers cannot adequately cover the other, then it may only take Manning hitting up a couple of big plays away from Norman’s coverage to swing this game in Denver’s favor. If the Broncos’ defense can keep Cam Newton and company in check, then this game will come down to fine margins and control of the clock. It may not be enough for the Panthers if the Broncos can exploit some of their second-half frailties that they have shown at times this season, but to this point, have not proved fatal.