What to watch for when Denver has the ball

Who has the edge when Peyton Manning and company take the field? Ben Stockwell breaks down the matchup.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

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.

Up next: What to watch for when Carolina has the ball

| Director of Analysis

Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.

  • David Paul

    Sure the Panthers have given up some yards passing in the playoffs – after they built insurmountable leads. If Denver falls behind by two scores it will turn ugly as they have to rely on the ghost of Peyton Manning to bring them back.

    • Jody

      There is zero reason to think Denver’s defense won’t keep this close. I’d be just as worried if I were Carolina falling behind two scores. Watch the Broncos secondary make some key picks/strips that turn the tide in this one…

      • David Paul

        Denver’s defense gave up 300+ yards passing to a crippled Steelers’ offense, 34 pts and 300+ yards passing to a healhier one in the regular season. Seattle and Arizona not only also have top defenses, they have much better offenses than Denver’s, and they got completely boat raced in the first half.

        Denver and Peyton are a nice story, but they kind of lucked into HFA and it took a fumble late by the 3rd string RB to help them beat the Steelers. They’re stepping up in class while the Panthers just dispatched two teams better than anyone Denver has beaten.

        Sorry, it’s not going to be close.

        • anon76returns

          LOL! Yes, of course the Seahawks were better than anybody the Broncos have played. They only lost to the Rams this year. Twice. And the Packers. And the Bengals. And the Cards. And of course the Panthers. They were a really good team in 2013 and 2014. Unfortunately for them, this isn’t 2013 or 2014. Still, they made some unforced errors that put them in a big hole and still nearly came back on the Panthers. The Broncos won’t make those mistakes.

          The Cardinals were an excellent team this year in weeks 1-16. Then they got absolutely destroyed at home by the Seahawks, barely survived a Green Bay squad that had no business taking them to overtime, and then promptly saw their luck run out in the NFCCG. They were clearly running on fumes at that point, and were barely a shadow of the team they had been in the regular season.

          The Panthers have been showboating all season while playing the NFC East, the AFC South, and the Bucs, Falcons, and Saints twice each. Out of 32 teams, the Panthers had the weakest schedule in the entire league.
          The Broncos had a top 10 schedule in the entire league, with only the Steelers and Packers playing a tougher schedule out of the playoff field. The Broncos didn’t luck into anything, they earned home field by beating the #2, #3, and #5 seed in the AFC, as well as the #3 and #5 seed from the NFC. The Broncos have won more close games this season than any team in the SB era.

          We’ll find out in 5 days how well the league’s weakest schedule prepares you for the season’s biggest game.

          • David Paul

            You’re cherry picking which games count for Arizona and Seattle. At the end of the year? Seattle was better than New England and Pittsburgh. So was Arizona, depsite them losing to Seattle with their starters pulled in the finale. That’s what I was saying. Strength of schedule is a factor, but it also matters when you play teams.

            Look, I’m rooting for you, I just saw Denver’s offense look very shakey lately, including against a miserable Pittsburgh defense and an average NE defense. Your defense played great against NE, OK against Pittsburgh, who was crippled and mainly stopped themselves. Neither team can run the ball, Pittsburgh also has a lousy pass defense, and bottled up Manning for most of the game.

            You’re playing a complete team on Sunday. They run, pass, stop the run, and stop the pass. You’ll need to force several turnovers and commit none, bucking season long trends.

            I hope you win and Peyton rides off into the sunset as a champion, but I fear that Denver is going to do what they usually do in the Super Bowl – get pantsed.

            BTW, reminding everyone of how many close games the Broncos won shows how close they were to being an 8-8 team.

          • Ben M

            I know Peyton will be able to put up 8 points like he did in the last Super Bowl. When he was really good.

          • gezuscryst

            He got OWNED by you, David. No wonder he didn’t respond! LOL!

          • SpringsGal

            Who got owned now? Kids should not be predicting football games.

          • Bryan

            david has no clue what he’s talking about

          • SpringsGal

            Arizona was the weakest of all the teams that played in the Championship week. Carson Palmer just does not have what it takes to win big games. He choked big time. Seattle had a tough, tough game on the road against Minnesota under miserable weather conditions. And then they had to turn around, make a cross country trip to Carolina. They did not show up in the 1st half and yet almost made it a game in the 2nd half. Carolina is a very good team….but has not been tested in these playoffs. If Denver protects the ball and keeps the game close, Carolina will face big time pressure in the 2nd half.

          • David Paul

            Agree, the pressure will mount for Carolina if it is close in the 2nd half. By the same token, if Carolina jumps on them like they did Arizona and Seattle, there will be a feeling of “here we go again” on the Denver sideline. Manning isn’t leading a big comeback against this team.

            Denver needs to do more than just not turn it over, though – they need to sustain drives and score, which I’m not sure how they will do, or force turnovers and get short fields, which is their best bet.

            Denver’s defense is not going to shock Carolina, though. Despite your low opinion of Seattle and Arizona, their defenses are very good, can cover receivers, and bring pressure.

          • SpringsGal

            If Carolina jumps to a big lead (2 TDs plus) in the 1st quarter, then the game will quickly get away from the Broncos. For the Broncos to win, they have to keep the game close, weather the storm in the 1st half. And then the pressure switches over to Carolina. Denver defense can create turnovers under those conditions (with Cam trying to push for a score).

            Denver’s defense shocked Brady and the Pats. Belichick wanted to dictate the game in the 1st quarter and chose to take the ball after winning the toss. Belichick was confident that the Pats would score right away and put Manning on the defensive. Belichick (who most consider one of the best coaches ever) underestimated the Broncos defense.

            All the Panthers have been doing all week is talking and showboating. Just like the average fan, the Panthers believe that this game has already been won. And that could very well set up them for a shock – if they believe all the hype.

          • Bryan

            david the Broncos defense kicked the crap out of Carolina. Cam got flustered. Carolina was so overrated this year.

          • Bryan

            The Broncos are Super Bowl champs!!!

          • gezuscryst

            You are in for a RUDE awakening!

          • anon76returns

            LOL! I’ve been awake for 3 decades- my team’s been here before, and they’ve won big and lost big. Enjoy the run up to the game!

          • SpringsGal

            Also Seahawks barely won the game previous week on the basis of a missed FG against Minnesota. And playing in the subzero weather game took a toll on Seattle and they were not ready for the 1st half the next week against Panthers.

            As far as Arizona, Carson Palmer choked big time in the pressure situation of the playoffs.

            On offense, Denver CANNOT turn the ball over. On defense, Denver’s focus should be to stop the run. Force Cam to throw the ball to beat them. If they do that, this will be a close game in the 2nd half. And the pressure will be squarely on Cam and the showboating Panthers.

          • David Paul

            I haven’t heard nor seen any talking or showboating during the week. Rivera will have his team ready. Cam could be nervous, it’s happened to the best of them, but I don’t think they are taking Denver lightly.

          • Bryan

            They couldn’t handle the Broncos defense. Carolina was so overrated.

        • SpringsGal

          The average fan is prone to over react based on what they have seen recently. And that is exactly what you are doing. This game will only become a mismatch if Denver turns the ball over repeatedly like Arizona did. If Denver protects the ball, then this is going to be a close game.

          Denver limited Aaron Rodgers to less than 100 yards passing. The very next week Rodgers torched Carolina for 300 plus yards. So I can start ASSUMING a whole bunch of things based on that….but that will just make me an ignorant fan.

          Before the AFC Championship game, Sports Illustrated predicted NE will win 42-17. What happened? Brady got hit most of any QBs this season.

          Denver is set up perfectly for this game. Underdog role. Carolina and its fans are already celebrating the victory before the game has been played. Great spot to be in.

        • SpringsGal

          Yes David Paul….the game was not close. You were right. Broncos won by 2 TDs and it should not even been that close. Spanked Cam Newton and the Panthers. Sweet victory.

          No dabbing and celebration for Cam and the Panthers.

          Carolina – LOSERS.

        • Bryan

          You were right. It wasn’t close the Broncos kicked the crap out of Carolina.

    • anon76returns

      Broncos have beaten 3 teams (all of whom made the playoffs) after going down by 14+ points, and came back to tie a 4th team after going down by 17.
      The Broncos also set a record for winning the most 1 score games in a season in the Super Bowl era. You don’t want to think you have an “insurmountable” lead against Denver, and you really don’t want to get in a knife fight with them.

      Of course, Denver also gave up the least points per opponent drive, even though they had the 3rd worst avg. starting field position of any defense in the league, so they’re pretty difficult to score points against in the first place.

      • SpringsGal

        But at least couple of those games, the comebacks were mounted by Osweiller. If the Broncos fall behind, Manning may start pushing and that could result in turnovers. The Broncos stand a better chance to win a game in the teens or 20’s. If the score goes into the 30’s, then the Broncos are in trouble.

        • anon76returns

          Sure. Osweiler led 2 comebacks in 7 games, Manning led two come backs in 9 games. Manning’s demonstrated he has the ability this year, and, after all, he’s led more come-from-behind victories than any QB in NFL history. Of course the rest of the team DID play a role in those games as well.
          As for Manning and the turnovers, the turnover-prone Manning was injured. The non-injured Manning is relatively mistake free (as mistake free as any QB has been in these playoff). Correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, but you can’t ignore the possibility that his poor play was a symptom of injury.

          • SpringsGal

            Agreed that his injury resulted in some turnovers. And I am not sure he is completely 100 % healthy now. Even if he is healthy, his passes the past couple of games have still been wobbly/shaky. He still could have thrown a couple of picks against Pittsburgh/NE.

            I stand by what I said before. I cannot see how a Manning led offense can score 30 plus points (even with helpful field position from the Broncos defense). So it is really important for the Broncos to keep the game in the teens or 20’s.

    • SpringsGal

      Broncos ended up winning by 14 points and it should not even been that close.

  • Dano

    We all love Peyton, but this just isn’t going to be the story book finish that Bronco fans see through their orange colored glasses. Watch the Panther-Cardinal playoff game, and you will get a glimpse of what the Panther D will do to Bronco O. Palmer and his vaunted corp of WRs were supposed to roll on and throw the ball over the field. Well we all know the gory details for the Cards and this broken down version of Manning will fare even worse then Palmer. He will throw MORE TDs to Panthers DB/LBs than his team.

    • anon76returns

      Palmer went into the NFCCG having thrown 4 INTs in his last 4 games. He threw 4 INTs in the championship game. Wilson came into the Divisional round having thrown 2 INTs in his last 3 games, and he threw 2 INTs vs. the Panthers. Those are two QBs who had much better statistical seasons than Manning, but they came into the game having played sloppy with the ball, and they paid the price for it, although Wilson very nearly led the Seahawks back to tie it, and that was in Carolina.

      Manning hasn’t thrown an INT in 3 games. He understands and diagnoses defenses better than any QB that has ever played the game. He learned during his time off that he doesn’t need to force throws, that this Broncos team can win if he just makes smart, low risk decisions. There isn’t a coverage or a blitz that Carolina can throw at him that he hasn’t seen before- if it’s a bad look for a pass he’ll check into a run. If it’s a jailbreak blitz, he’ll throw it to his hot read long before the blitz can get home. The Panthers will not have the advantage of easy turnovers in this game, and the Panthers offense is going to have to try and grind out yards against a defense that is much better than the Cards’ or even the Seahawks’ defense. And I think you’re vastly underestimating what the Sheriff is still capable of doing to a defense.

      • SpringsGal

        Hopefully, the good Manning shows up as that will make it an interesting Super Bowl. But if Manning/Broncos turn the ball over, it could be a blowout. Officially, Manning has not thrown any INTs the past 2 1/2 games. But a few of his passes could have easily been picked off.

        The general perception at the national level is Carolina is going to win in a blowout. And that is due to Carolina jumping to quick leads at home against Arizona/Seattle. If Denver keeps the game close in the 1st half, the pressure will be squarely on Cam and the Panthers in the 2nd half. And the Broncos can thrive on that pressure.

        Lastly, all reports indicate that SF is overcrowded with Bronco fans. So this could very well be a game with a distinct home field advantage for the Broncos as far as crowd noise (which was not the case against Seattle in Super Bowl 48). I think the crowd in the stadium could very well be 75 % Bronco fans.

    • SpringsGal

      How about them apples, Dano??

      10 points for the vaunted Panther Offense. Wiped the smile off Newton’s face. No dabbing or celebration on the Panther sideline. That’s how you shut that team up.

    • Bryan

      Too bad the Broncos defense was so much better than the Carolina offense. Broncos beat them up badly.