What to watch for when Carolina has the ball
Super Bowl 50 offers some of the most intriguing matchups and battles of recent years. It features two teams with elite units and some fascinating battles on a smaller scale. Let’s dive into what will happen when Carolina has the ball on offense.
(Editor’s note: Be sure to also check out Ben Stockwell’s article on what to watch for when Denver has the ball.)
Panthers’ rushing attack vs. Broncos’ run defense
Carolina doesn’t just have one of the best running games in the NFL, but one of the most unique, thanks to their quarterback, Cam Newton. He isn’t a supplement to the run game with scrambles on passing plays the way some quarterbacks are—Newton is an integral part of Carolina’s running game by design. During the regular season, Newton rushed 132 times for 636 yards, but just 29 of them were scrambles. Russell Wilson, by comparison scrambled 58 times and did not have a single designed run between the tackles. Newton had 32.
With his stature and strength paired with super athleticism, he allows the Panthers not only to break out all of the option tricks other teams with athletic quarterbacks can, but to create entire packages of power QB-rush plays that no other team dares use. Newton changes the numbers game when it comes to defending the run.
Denver’s pass-rushers are so good, though, we tend to forget that most of them are excellent run defenders as well. Derek Wolfe, Von Miller, Brandon Marshall and even backup OLB Shaq Barrett have excellent grades against the run, and as a unit, Denver is the league’s highest-graded run-defense. There is no obvious weak link to the chain, but as is the common theme to this Super Bowl, the Broncos have not faced a quarterback that can do what Newton does in the run game. No longer do they have to consider simply what might happen if he breaks contain and scrambles, or if he keeps the ball on the option, but if he keeps it on a power play up the middle when they fake something else out wide. This Denver defense may be elite against the run, but Newton and the Panthers bring a scheme they haven’t had to contend with yet this year.
Panthers’ pass protection vs. Broncos pass rush’
If the run game edge is with the Panthers, this is where the Broncos look to have the advantage on paper. Von Miller is one of the league’s most dominant pass-rushers and has been on a mission in the post-season. He accounted for eight total pressures against the Patriots, and took Brady to the ground four times on his own. Carolina’s offensive line has been dramatically better than it looked on paper heading into the season, but Mike Remmers at right tackle against Von Miller is a mismatch. Remmers surrendered six sacks on the season and 40 additional pressures, as well as being flagged 11 times. So far in the postseason, he has actually been near perfect—yet to surrender a single pressure or be flagged on a play—but we have seen what Miller can do to offensive linemen with his speed and rush.
If Miller was all Carolina had to contend with, they could help Remmers out, but the problem is that Denver’s pass rush is so deep and varied. On the other side from Miller is DeMarcus Ware, with 44 total pressures to his name over the season. Shaq Barrett is the first edge player off the bench in their rotation, and he notched 26 pressures during his snaps. Shane Ray—the team’s first-round pick—has been sparingly used because the team is so deep, but still has 23 total pressures over the season. Inside, Malik Jackson has been one of the league’s most disruptive interior rushers, with 60 total pressures over the season, while Derek Wolfe played well enough to earn a contract extension, and instead of relaxing with his reward, has only taken his play up a notch since. In the postseason alone, Wolfe has 16 total pressures on just 82 pass-rushing snaps.
There is no place to hide from this Denver pass-rush, and Cam Newton holds the ball significantly longer than the average quarterback. The average time to throw of QBs the Broncos have faced this season is 2.51, but Newton’s is 2.83—slower than all but four other NFL passers. 52.1 percent of his passes take longer than 2.5 seconds to leave his hands, which is a bigger percentage than all but three other QBs this season.
The Broncos’ pass-rush will have plenty of opportunity to get after Newton and put him under pressure, and when he has been pressured this season, his passer rating has dropped 41.5 points.
Panthers’ passing attack vs. Broncos’ pass coverage
Cam Newton has been able to have stellar production with a group of role-player receivers and Greg Olsen. Denver’s defense this season has been spectacular when everybody is healthy, but was forced to change when Chris Harris Jr. went down hurt in the final game of the season. Over the season, the Broncos have run man-free coverage (man coverage underneath with a single high safety) on 36.2 percent of their plays. Against Pittsburgh they ran that just 26.8 percent of their snaps, but ran cover-3 on 42.6 percent. The injury to Harris primarily turned them into a zone-coverage team, forcing them away from their strengths. Against New England the next week, they were back to running man coverage, with 34.7 percent of their coverage man-free.
With two more weeks of rest for Harris, the Broncos should be comfortable deploying their preferred coverage schemes, and they have shown this season that, when they can do that, they can lock down even the league’s better units one-on-one across the board. Ted Ginn has the speed to get open deep, but Denver has the ability to match up with every receiver the Panthers can deploy and cover them for an extended period of time, forcing the quarterback to hold the ball longer to wait for them to uncover, and buying time for their pass-rush. With Harris struggling for health, this unit needs to change what they do to accommodate him, but when he is healthy, this becomes one of the best coverage units in the league, and the edge lies firmly with Denver.