Broncos’ front four dominate Pats, will be difference against Panthers

Denver's defense found the winning formula against Tom Brady—can they continue it against Carolina?

| 8 months ago
(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Broncos’ front four dominate Pats, will be difference against Panthers


Many will say the blueprint has been set for years. The way to slow down the New England Patriots’ offense is to create pressure with the front four and play tight coverage on the back end. In reality, that’s not so much a blueprint as much as it is having dominant players come up big in clutch situations, and that’s just what the Broncos had on Sunday.

The first part of the equation, the pass rush, is essential to make it work, and the Broncos showed they have the playmakers up front. Everything starts with Von Miller, the best edge rusher in the NFL. New England’s right tackle, Marcus Cannon, was no match for Miller, who finished with three sacks, one hit, and four hurries on 41 rushes. His pass-rush grade of 91.3 is the best among the league’s edge rushers, and it was on full display in the AFC Championship.

On the other side, it was a similarly dominant performance by DeMarcus Ware, who notched a sack, six hits, and three hurries of his own. He did most of his work against Patriots’ left tackle Sebastian Vollmer, combining with Miller to create some of the best edge pressure on both sides that you’ll ever see in a game.

It didn’t stop there.

The great equalizer, especially against Tom Brady, is the interior pressure. More importantly, getting pressure from more than one player makes it near-impossible for the quarterback to diagnose the defense, and Denver got plenty of help on the interior. Derek Wolfe picked up a sack, three hits, and four hurries to go with a batted pass, while Malik Jackson had two hits and four hurries of his own. With pressure coming from all angles, and strong coverage from Denver’s back-seven, Brady had little chance and finished 7-for-23 for 73 yards (3.2 yards/attempt) and a passer rating of 37.0 when pressured.

Perhaps most impressive about the entire effort: the Broncos blitzed a season-low 17.2 percent of the time. The four-man rush created pressure on 19-of-39 dropbacks, an incredible 48.7 percent (Brady was pressured on 35.3 percent of all snaps this season), including two sacks and 12 hits on those 19 pressures. When pressure got home, it got there in 2.16 seconds on average, quicker than Brady’s 2.35 second average time to throw on the season.

Looking forward for Denver, this is the type of pressure they’ll need to combat the high-powered offense of the Carolina Panthers, though the task won’t come as easy. The Panthers’ line gave up 18 sacks, a league-low nine QB hits this season, and the third-fewest “knockdowns” in the league (27). Denver had 18 knockdowns alone against New England. Something has to give.

If the Broncos are going to be crowned Super Bowl champions, it will come down to another dominant performance from their front-four; Miller, Ware, Jackson, and Wolfe may just be up to the task.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • Jared

    On paper its going to be a more difficult game against the Panthers. The Patriots had the 31st ranked pass blocking Oline coming in to the game and it played out as expected The Panthers have a great unit up front and throw in a dual threat QB and it should be fun to watch.

    • anon76returns

      Of course, Cam also doesn’t get the ball out as quick as Brady, nor does he have as many legitimate playmakers to spread the ball around to. But then, neither is Brady any sort of a threat to run, while Newton might be the best running QB ever.
      It will be a very different game, I agree. But I’m not sure it will be too much more difficult. The Broncos game against GB showed that the Denver D can contain a mobile QB and keep sub-par receiving talent well covered for 5-6 seconds.

      • JudoPrince

        Denvers offence is not pretty. If the Panthers get a few big plays going to be hard for Denver to match.

        • SpringsGal

          DT has to show up for Denver offense to make some big plays. It could be in the form of yards after catch or breaking some tackles and picking up some free yards.

          Also the Denver defense has to create some turnovers off their own to set up Denver offense in favorable position.

          Yesterday’s Cardinal game was a blowout because Palmer choked with all those turnovers. If the Broncos do not turnover the ball and keep the game close heading into the 4th quarter, the pressure will be on Cam.

          • Ben M

            You know that face Peyton gets when he’s frustrated? He’s always put himself under such pressure. He’s already mentioned retirement. Where’s his head at?

            Just saying – a few early hits and he’ll make the Seattle face.

        • anon76returns

          Doesn’t have to be pretty, just has to get the job done. They’ve played to the level of their opponents all season (excepting the game where Manning played injured). They’ve also won every game where they were underdogs this season. And I’m pretty sure the defense has scored a touchdown for every big play they’ve given up this season.

      • gezuscryst

        You might want to review the red zone play against the Cardinals last week when he was rushed for a sack but got the ball out to Funchess for a TD. He gets it out extremely fast. #KeepPounding

        • anon76returns

          No doubt he can get it out quickly from time to time. But he was not one of the league leaders in time to throw. Through week 6 (the last time I had access to PFF data), the Panthers were ranked 30th of 32 teams in terms of getting the ball out quickly.

          • gezuscryst

            We are not talking about the regular season. We are talking about a QB that has the hot hand and who is getting the ball out faster and more accurately than the Sheriff!

          • anon76returns

            ?
            What makes you think he’s getting it out faster than Manning? I only have data through week 6, but at that time Manning was getting it out in 2.21 sec (3rd fastest in the league). Newton was getting rid of it in 2.92 sec (3rd slowest in the league). Nothing I’ve seen in the playoffs make me think Cam has flipped the switch THAT much. Manning is faster.

    • humper-dinkle dinkle-humper

      It is an intriguing matchup. Hopefully the game lives up to its potential.

  • Brian

    I know denver just dominated brady (best qb ever), belichick(best coach ever), & NE (in the middle of the nfl’s greatest dynasty ever), but Carolina is a different animal. First of all, denver was at home. 2nd, brady still threw for over 300 yds somehow & nearly won the game despite being pressured a historic amount. 3rd ne’s offensive line is among the leagues worst. None of this is the case with Carolina. What people don’t understand is ne was having a down year. I’m sure many of u rolled your eyes about the pats greatest nfl dynasty comment but it’s totally true. Over the last 15 years ne has had unprecedented success in a time when it’s harder than ever to do. Free agency and the salary cap make it impossible to maintain a dynasty. All the rules and scheduling make it even more impossible. But ne somehow contends for a sb every year and that’s why they are the greatest nfl dynasty. But what people don’t understand is ne had down years just like every other team, it’s just that ne still contends for super bowls when they have down years. So while denver best the crap out of ne and deserves to go to the super bowl, I don’t think they have any reason to be confident going into this game.

    • anon76returns

      LOL!
      You go to the SB, you earn the right to be confident. You sport an historic defense, you have the right to be confident. The Panthers beat a choking Cardinals team at home. They did it in impressive fashion, but after seeing the last three games, I don’t think the Cardinals were playing very well at all. Should we tell them they have no reason to be confident going into the SB?

      • Brian

        The only reason they should be confident is bc they’re pro athletes & as a athlete u should always be confident u are going to win so the words I chose were incorrect. Let me phrase it properly. I think anyone outside of the denver players, coaches, execs, etc should not be at all confident denver is going to win. I think carolina would have beaten ne as well if it would have been them. Personally I look at Denver’s knack for getting blown put in super bowls & think another is coming.

        • anon76returns

          Remind me what the 1986, 1987, & 1989 Bronco teams have in common with this one, please?
          Heck, only 5 of the 22 starters in SB XLVIII are back. Completely different team, completely different mentality. And elite defense, absolutely. One of the 8 best that FO has ever characterized in 27 years of tracking, virtually tied with the 2013 Seahawks defense.

          • Dan Hachenberger

            Also more versitile than the Seahawks defense.

      • Brian

        And honestly denver getting embarrassed by seattle leaves me biased. The sb should be a great game, not a blow out. Denver supposedly had this great team, but was destroyed by seattle. Denver robbed everyone of a good super bowl & I’d rather not see it again.

        • Bjghanem

          Denver was missing 4 or 5 starters on defense when the lost in the SB to Seattle. Keep that in mind.

        • Dan Hachenberger

          Brian, this is a different team than 2013. There are 6 starters on the Broncos that started in SB 48. New coaching staff and a whole new philosophy. Not to mention the 2013 SB had lost 7 starters for the season. Starters like Rylan Clady, Von Miller, Chris Harris, etc. that was not mentioned much, not an excuse, but…

    • Jack Casey

      I don’t think he has played at a Brady/Rodgers type tier all year. He really turned it on midway through the season. I remember him trying to give games away like Philly game, Colts game and Packers game and his defense bailing him out.

    • Jody

      Denver’s ‘D’ is the 8th best DVOA in the modern era – it’s right up there with Seattle’s 2013 defense. Carolina can choose the keep 6 or 7 on the line and protect Cam but have receivers smothered, or they can go with less and risk the sacks and penetration. Pick your poison…

      • Ben M

        I read that SI article too. Carolina’s O-Line is PFF’s 4th. New England’s was PFF’s 29th. Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, and Cam will pound the middle all day long behind their Pro-Bowl interior until Denver wears out.

        • DaBroncs

          He tried pounding the middle. Got nothing. #KeepPounding though, maybe they’ll get more than a yard going through the middle.

      • gezuscryst

        Denver’s D hasn’t played an offensive line like the Panthers. Period. Denver is in trouble. The NFC is better this year. Plain and Simple.

    • Thomas Bell

      On a site built on statistical reasoning, following a story with a lot of facts, that’s a pretty lame analysis. Wait, there was no analysis. Just heavy handed opinion.

    • codered5

      Anyone that says kuechly is better than miller is on drugs. Miller has played off the ball linebacker before at an excellent level but kuechly would suck as an edge rusher. He’s not even a good blitzer. Miller could do his job. He couldn’t do millers

      • gezuscryst

        But Luke has more assignments than being a “pass rusher”. Who intercepts the ball better, or covers, or tackles. LUUUUUUUUUUUUKE! That’s who. Miller is strictly, and mainly a pass rusher.

      • Brian

        Miller could NOT do what luke does. Luke does EVERYTHING. Luke is nowhere near the pass rusher miller is but miller is nowhere near the complete backer luke is. They’re both at the top of their respective positions but I’m basing this off of impact. I’m sorry but anyone who thinks miller is better than luke is the one who is probably not in their right state of mind or is definitely biased. Luke is an impact player that makes game changing plays consistently. Miller on the other hand is inconsistent. In miller’s 1st 5 playoff games he was basically nonexistent, having accumulated a 1.5 sacks. He finally had a breakout game against one of the leagues worst lines in ne’s. Luke on the other hand has dominated more often than not during the postseason and the regular season. U don’t see the stretches of inconsistencies from luke that u do miller. And luke is rated significantly higher by pff than miller. Miller isn’t even the highest rated edge rusher nor in the top 3. Miller is a great player but luke is better. Luke is also rated higher on FO. So give me an unbiased argument that miller is better than luke.

        • DaBroncs

          Ealy did well. Luke vs Miller? Not even close. Spanked that so called vaunted O-Line of the Panthers all day.

  • Bryan

    I think people are forgetting the Panthers run a read option which will let the Broncos hit Cam even if he’s in the pocket. No flags are going to be thrown. Read option means yours a runner not a QB, the NFL has made sure QB’s know this. Russell Wilson complained about being hit and the league told him deal with it. This means if Cam can’t handle getting hit alot he will lose his cool and I think he turns the ball over. I believe the game will be alot closer than most think. Should be a great game.

    • Bill Oxley

      Bryan, I’ve read many of your posts all over the internet. Please give it a rest. Somehow, I don’t think you are the ultimate authority on the upcoming SB. Your bias is clear as can be. Good for you, but I hope your relentless attitude as to the outcome doesn’t disappoint you too much. Your tone comes across as if you know more about NFL football than anyone else on the planet. The best team “at that moment” will win. And life goes on!

    • gezuscryst

      Cam is going to ball on Denver and Denver will not be able to get the big plays on Carolina. That will be the difference. Carolina 28-17 Denver.

  • Ben M

    I know Brady is Brady, but Denver beat a fairly broken NE offensive line that was in about its 12th configuration for the year. Say “12th Man” in New England this year and they think of the O-Line, not the fans. Denver BARELY beat broken New England. Had Bellichick not coached stupidly at Denver (avoiding late FGs), Carolina would be facing New England.

    Peyton is a legend. But he’s not current. He’s talking retirement.
    Denver has the edge rushers, Carolina has weak tackles.
    Carolina has two Pro-Bowlers on the interior line and another that should be except for mid-season injury.

    Newton plays spastic his 1st quarter, but this year he’s calmed down and is the MVP. Denver will see read-option quite a bit and lots of runs up the middle. Rivera will pound Denver to death early on offense and defense. Peyton will try to attack Carolina’s corners the way Carson Palmer and Eli Manning did. Didn’t work.

    Sometime during the 2nd Quarter, Peyton will get that tight, frustrated look on his face with memories of the Seattle pounding. He’s psyche will play with him and he’ll have PTSD flashbacks of Seattle. A legend in the regular season most years, he’ll revert back to the taught, frustrated, brittle man that suffered at the hands of Seattle.

    I see it as Panthers 17-7 at halftime, 34-17 to win the game. Denver is a great team, but Denver doesn’t have the weapons to keep pace.

    • DaBroncs

      Funny. I saw Cam getting that frustrated face of defeat in the 2nd quarter. Great call, wrong QB!

      • Ben M

        True, True, but Cam actually played in that game, Peyton really didn’t. Might have been better to have Osweiler there.

        Plus, the refs. Really? The catch by Cotchery was good. A ball has to hit the ground to be “not-a-catch”. Sorry. Josh Norman had it right. Carolina played two teams. They even announced the overturn in the booth.

        Denver lost 3 Superbowls before they finally won it. And Cam played better than Elway did in his first two all things considered.

        At least we didn’t lose to Seattle 43-8. Bask in your victory. We’ll be back.

  • finleye

    If Denver’s defense is going to have the same kind of success against Cam as they did against Brady, their strategy will have to completely different because Carolina’s offense is in many ways the opposite of New England’s. Carolina uses lots of max protect, New England often spreads it out five wide. Carolina’s bread and butter is the power run game, New England’s is the quick pass game. Carolina’s QB plays equal amounts pocket qb, running qb, and running back and speads the ball around so much that he doesn’t have any clear tendency towards a favorite target (although Olsen has obviously had the most catches and targets, there is no overwhelming tendency to target him in the red zone, for instance. Cam’s just as likely to target Funchess, Ginn, Dickson, Tolbert, or Cotchery). Brady is predominantly a pocket QB who clearly does have a favorite target.