Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware spent the AFC Championship Game terrorizing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. They combined for three sacks and 11 of Denver's 20 quarterback knockdowns, a season high for any defense in any one game this year. It was a perfect storm of opportunity in a wildly favorable matchup: The Broncos needed to get pressure with as few players as possible and had a pair of star edge rushers matched up against tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon, who offered precious little resistance.
Super Bowl 50 would seem to present a similar opportunity. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers have greatly exceeded expectations as Carolina's starting tackle combination this season, but on paper, they shouldn't be anything resembling a match for Denver's star duo. But it's not that simple. The Panthers make it as difficult for edge rushers to impact games as any team in football by virtue of their imaginative, devastating rushing attack. It's not that the Panthers can't block Miller and Ware; it's that they may not need to whatsoever. How Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips employs his two dominant edge rushers ended up deciding the AFC; two weeks later, it may similarly determine who takes home the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Reading is fundamental
For an offense that's regarded as an old-school, blood-and-guts running attack, the Panthers have quietly put together one of the more diverse and modern offenses in the game. They're the apartment with the exposed brick walls from the turn of the century across from a Sub-Zero refrigerator. That began with former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who mixed a power running attack with traditional concepts with some of the read-option concepts Cam Newton executed during his time at Auburn. And after Chudzinski left for the Browns, quarterbacks coach Mike Shula took over and further expanded the playbook. Carolina does as much to trip up opposing defenses as anybody in football.
That's not to say the Panthers can't line up in the I-formation and run you over. Watch Jonathan Stewart's 59-yard run to open the game against Seattle and you'll see that the Panthers are totally capable of blowing up teams in a traditional manner. Even here, there's a little bit of extra misdirection as part of this traditional counter, with fullback Mike Tolbert (35) feigning that he's going to block to the right side before following the pulling guard to a surprised K.J. Wright. Stewart is patient in the hole, Tolbert makes the block at the point of attack, and left guard Andrew Norwell (68) decides to go for a combo bonus by blocking three different Seahawks. Nothing too fancy in here.
The strength of Carolina's running game isn't what it does under center, though. What makes the Panthers' running game so unique and special, instead, is what they do out of the shotgun with their zone-read looks. The numbers tell you most of the story here:
Plenty of teams at least show zone-read looks within their offenses in 2015. ESPN Stats & Information credits 27 teams with at least one read-option play on offense this year. In many cases this is done to slow down edge rushers while creating running lanes for backs who are getting the ball anyway. The option is between a run and a pass, not a run with a halfback or a run with a quarterback.
The Eagles are a perfect example of this; while they ran hundreds of running plays out of the shotgun that had the mesh point of a read-option play, Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez weren't reading much in terms of the running game. Bradford didn't have a single carry out of the read-option all season, while Sanchez had just three. Even teams such as the Bears and Chiefs, which gave Jay Cutler and Alex Smith the latitude to read defenders and hold onto the football for runs, were using the threat of the occasional quarterback keeper as an exception to keep defenses honest.
With the Panthers, though, the sheer variety of what they do with read-option concepts as part of their ground attack is dazzling. That starts with the simple fact that they have a running threat at quarterback that nobody else in football can really match. Newton is bigger and faster than the vast majority of defenders who are going to try to tackle him, as poor Cardinals safety Chris Clemons found out in the NFC Championship Game. The zone-read is predicated upon flipping a numbers advantage, that the threat of the quarterback as a runner means that the typical defensive 11-on-10 advantage (which comes after the quarterback hands off the ball and basically leaves the play) is flipped to an 11-on-10 offensive advantage (because a defender is left unblocked and the quarterback is allowed to run the football). With Newton, 11-on-11 is tough. 11-on-10 is close to impossible.
Because Cam is 6-foot-5 and 245 (or more) pounds, there are designed runs for Newton in the Carolina playbook that other teams can't even consider. Matt Bowen covered these in a fun piece for ESPN Insider. It's one thing for Newton to run the inverted veer, a concept that came into vogue when Andy Dalton started running it in his college days at TCU before Newton excelled with it at Auburn. It's another to see a wildly expensive quarterback -- a position both teams and the league itself attempt to wrap in cotton wool -- running power plays, lead draws and counters.
Then, of course, you have all the option looks that come with Newton as a viable runner. The Panthers run a typical read-option against the edge like all those other teams, and when your defensive end cheats inside to try to crash against a Stewart or Tolbert run, there aren't many linebackers who are going to beat Newton to the edge. As Chris Brown wrote back in the Chudzinski days, though, Newton can do -- and does -- so much more. There are plays where he'll read an unblocked defensive tackle and sweep outside because no defensive tackle on the planet can catch Cam Newton. They'll motion wide receivers into the backfield and throw out a triple option.
All of this is even before getting to the running plays that don't involve Newton whatsoever. Shula is equally creative with those concepts. Sure, the Panthers will run inside and outside zone, power, counter and trap plays. Versatility in personnel and in blockers allows the Panthers to overwhelm defenses conceptually. They'll fire in the motion for a jet sweep two or three times in a possession, never hand it off to the wide receiver, and come back to it later in the game. Shula will dial up a running play that mirrors the blocking from an earlier play before twisting it in a totally different direction as you over-pursue. Carolina screws with your run fits, stretches you horizontally and then gashes you vertically.
What this all does is paralyze the front seven of the opposing defense. Watch tape of the Panthers this season and you'll see edge rushers who seem to freeze every time Carolina is in the shotgun, trying to tiptoe in three directions at once as they follow the various fakes and motion en route to actually locating the football. When they get too aggressive, the Panthers have enough discipline and ballhandling ability to run into vacated lanes. And when the defense gets too conservative and waits to read and react, Carolina is too quick and plows forward for chunks of yardage.
Ben Muth of Football Outsiders did a great job of breaking down this very problem when it came to the NFC Championship Game. Poor Markus Golden seemed to spend the game not knowing what was going to happen next, and that's on a very well-coached, very athletic Arizona defense.
You can imagine what this might do to a defense built around its edge rushers. Last time out, Miller and Ware had it relatively easy: They had to make it through a battered Patriots offensive line and attack a stationary target who was almost always going to be inside the pocket. With the Patriots exhibiting little ability or inclination to run the football, the two ends could afford to be aggressive in trying to target Brady. It worked.
This week, things could not be more different. While Newton can be statuesque in the pocket at times as he waits for somebody to get open, the Carolina rushing attack should leave Miller and Ware looking for shadows coming toward them at all times. Oher and Remmers can't block the two star pass-rushers one-on-one, but they won't have to do so, at least on a frequent basis. That's one of the ways Carolina has been able to get by with what looked like one of the worst offensive lines in the league on paper heading into the season, and why Newton has been so effective throwing the ball in the fourth quarter. His sack rate drops and his efficiency rises because opposing rushers must be physically and mentally exhausted by the hoops the Panthers make them run through to make plays in the backfield.
The truth is that the Broncos aren't an especially great fit for this Panthers offense. You'd want a defense who can stand up in short-yardage situations, and the Broncos are the second worst short-yardage run defense in the league, ahead of only Carolina. (Remember that when the camera pans over to Riverboat Ron before a fourth-and-short.) If you wanted to construct a defense that was designed to stop Carolina, you'd want penetrating interior linemen who could blow up plays in the backfield, rangy inside linebackers who could run with Newton and tight end Greg Olsen, and safeties who weren't going to get burned deep.
That isn't Denver.
The Broncos have gotten impressive seasons from ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson, the latter of whom was a monster in the victory over the Patriots, but their inside linebackers are closer to liabilities. The Patriots were basically solely down to targeting Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall by the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game, while the Broncos lost starting safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart to injuries. Ward and Stewart are expected to play, but neither is 100 percent. They were a great pass defense this year, but their weakest spot was clearly against tight ends, where they were eighth in DVOA. That was also the only receiving spot where they allowed more yards per game (61.7) than the league average (55.1), albeit not by much.
Instead, the Broncos have edge rushers and depth at cornerback. That would have been a great matchup against the Cardinals, but Wade Phillips has to make this combination work against the Panthers. How does he do it? It's hard to say, because the sample size of Phillips defenses against zone-read teams over the past several years is remarkably slim. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Phillips' defenses in Houston faced just 26 zone-read attempts in his three combined seasons as defensive coordinator from 2011 to 2013. The Broncos followed up by facing just 14 zone-read attempts this season, most of which came against the Chiefs. Forty attempts over four seasons isn't a meaningful amount of information. By comparison, the Panthers used the read-option a league-high 119 times on the ground this season alone.
So, what will Phillips do? My suspicion is that he has to attack and hope that his cornerbacks can hold up behind the defense in coverage. The scrape-exchange is one common way of defensing the zone-read, with an edge rusher bursting into the backfield while an inside linebacker or safety curls outside to fill his vacated lane. That would play to Miller and Ware's aggressiveness while pushing them into the backfield in the case that Carolina is throwing the football.
Phillips also might consider moving one or both of his star linebackers around or even lining them up in the middle of the formation so they can spy Newton as he moves around the backfield. Few defenders can run with Newton, but the incredibly athletic Miller might be an exception. Under any circumstances, don't expect Phillips to overwhelm his players. He's a wonderful defensive coordinator and somebody capable of winning a game on his own, but Phillips doesn't need an expansive play sheet to get there. Given the mental stress that comes with playing Carolina, that might actually be a positive.
Pushing seven men into the box and trusting his defensive backs to hold up in man coverage (or some variant of man coverage) is a lot for Phillips to ask, but his defensive backs might be up to the task. Carolina often uses all that run confusion and those powerful, two-tight end formations to max protect and throw downfield. If you're wondering how Ted Ginn managed to get five yards open downfield more this season than he has during the entirety of his career up to 2015, here's how.
The Panthers protected Newton with seven men or more -- meaning that there were no more than three receivers running routes -- on 17.1 percent of their dropbacks this season. That was the most in the league by a comfortable margin; second-placed Indianapolis was at 13.7 percent, and the league average was 8.1 percent, less than half of Carolina's frequency. The Panthers posted a 110.8 passer rating on their 89 pass attempts when they went max protect. That was the sixth-best figure in the league.
The good news for Broncos fans -- and I realize this hasn't been a very fun section to read if you are a Denver supporter -- is that they've been great against teams who max protect. They've allowed a QBR of just 26.2 against teams keeping seven men or more in to block, the third-best figure in the league behind Cleveland (14.7) and, um, Carolina (24.4). And while you might expect the Panthers to be great on play-action given the success of their running game, Newton & Co. are actually 30th in the league in QBR when they go with a play fake. The Panthers are great on offense, which isn't surprising in that they had the league's top-ranked attack this year, but they have a few holes.
Well, the Panthers have the league's top offense by some measures. Carolina scored 500 points this season, more than any other team in football. That's 31.3 points per game. And through their first two playoff games, the Panthers haven't exactly been found out; they've added 80 points, becoming just the fourth team since the AFL-NFL merger to average 40 points per contest across the divisional round and conference championships. That worked out well for the last team to pull off that feat, although the 2014 Patriots certainly didn't win the Super Bowl the easy way.
Nobody doubts that the Carolina offense is good, but advanced metrics suggest that it isn't really the best attack in football. Football Outsiders pegs the Panthers as the league's eighth-best offensive attack through the end of the regular season by defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). ESPN's Football Power Index has the Panthers slightly higher at sixth, even including their impressive run in the postseason.
In some cases, this would be splitting hairs. The problem is that the Denver defense looks better than its raw numbers might indicate. The Broncos were fourth in the league in points allowed, but advanced metrics find them to be irresistible. DVOA has Denver as comfortably the league's best defense, with the Panthers closer to the sixth-ranked Chiefs than their top-ranked Super Bowl opposition. FPI tells an even stronger story; the Broncos are first and the Panthers are second, but Sean McDermott's group is closer to the Patriots in 13th than they are to Denver. What seems like the best offense against a pretty good defense is actually the best defense against a pretty good offense.
Of course, even DVOA and FPI fail to tell the whole story. Let's look a little deeper:
1. Carolina had a lot of chances to score. The Panthers had 185 meaningful offensive possessions this season, which tied them for the 10th-most drives in football. Most offenses who enjoy extra possessions are usually pretty bad; no offense that ranked in the top half of the league in terms of yards per possession got as many chances to score as Carolina.
2. It was easier for Carolina to score. Newton and his offense generally took over with remarkably favorable field position. The typical Panthers possession in 2015 began 69.5 yards away from the end zone, which was the second-shortest average field faced by an offense in football this season, behind the Chiefs. The average team's drive began 72.7 yards away from pay dirt. Admittedly, 3.2 yards doesn't sound like much of a difference. But remember that it's 3.2 yards over 185 drives. That's nearly six football fields of position -- 592 yards -- over the course of an entire season.
3. No, really, it was easier for Carolina to score. In part by virtue of their presence in the deleterious NFC South, the Panthers also faced a very friendly slate of opposing defenses. Football Outsiders estimates that the Panthers went up against the league's easiest schedule on offense this season. It's a selective endpoint, but the Panthers faced just one top-seven defense by DVOA all season, the fourth-ranked Seahawks. (They did play the eighth-ranked Texans and ninth-ranked Packers, to be fair.)
On the other hand, Carolina had four games against bottom-seven defenses, with the 26th-ranked Jaguars, 30th-ranked Giants and a pair of games against the Saints, who were the worst defense in football by just about any measure or concept of performance imaginable.
4. The offense got extra help from the Carolina defense. While the Panthers did not score a return touchdown on special teams this year, their defense chipped in with five return touchdowns, including four pick-sixes. Those 35 points were the fifth-highest total in the league for defensive scores, with the average team producing 19.8 points on defensive touchdowns this season. A statistic that simply measures points scored would credit those as part of Carolina's offense, while metrics such as DVOA and FPI would separate them out from Carolina's offensive output.
5. The Panthers were unstoppable in the red zone. As good as Carolina was over the first 80 yards of the field, they were downright unmanageable once they began to sniff the end zone. As you might suspect from an offense with Newton and Stewart, the Panthers were the best red-zone offense in football, averaging 5.54 points per trip inside the 20. The average team averaged 4.89 points per red zone possession.
Red zone performance is incredibly important, but it's also inconsistent from year to year, which is why advanced metrics tend to discount it. Indeed, even with Newton around last season, the Panthers averaged 4.43 points per possession in 2014 -- 23rd in the league.
So here's the part where I'm supposed to say that all of that isn't sustainable and how it's a sign that the Panthers aren't quite as good as they might seem on offense. Here's the problem, though: There are a lot of reasons why the Panthers could -- and have -- been keeping this up during the postseason. Arguments 1, 2, and 4 are built around the impressive work of their defense, and the defense has remained very good during the playoffs. It has forced nine takeaways, which has created a lot of short fields for their offense, and Luke Kuechly has scored on a pair of pick-sixes.
The offense also has held up its end of the bargain, as it has been unstoppable in the red zone. Carolina's seven possessions inside the 20 have ended with six touchdowns and one field goal, good for a ridiculous 6.42 points per red zone trip. And there's not a ton of evidence that the Broncos, for all their defensive dominance, are an especially stout team inside their own 20. They allowed 4.81 points per red zone possession on defense this season, which was 15th in the league. They're down to 3.42 points per red zone trip this postseason, but that's also in a much smaller sample (and includes New England's adventures in extra points from the AFC Championship Game).
The strength of schedule argument also looks to be flipped on its head. The Panthers have faced a pair of top-five defenses in the Seahawks and Cardinals during the postseason and come away looking awful impressive. The far more obvious mismatch is the second-ranked Panthers defense against a Broncos offense that ranks just 25th in DVOA. To overcome that, the Broncos will need to hope for a different sort of game altogether.
Just a simple plan
Even if the Broncos' defense manages to neutralize the league's top-scoring offense, the Denver offense is going to have to find a way to manufacture points against one of the NFL's most dominant defenses. And again, in many ways, this seems like a problematic matchup. This is a defense that led the league in takeaways -- one that has added nine more during the postseason, mind you -- against a quarterback who threw an interception in each of his first nine starts. Peyton Manning hasn't thrown an interception since returning to the lineup in Week 17, but on Sunday, something will have to give.
When the league's 25th-ranked offense (by DVOA) meets its second-ranked defense you presume that offense is going to be in for a long day. That may very well be true, and if it is, it'll be close to impossible for the Broncos to win. It seems exceedingly unlikely that the Broncos will rack up a monster day on offense, but they'll likely need some reasonable number of points to beat Carolina. The Vegas team total suggests that the Broncos are projected to score 19.5 points. What can they do to get to -- and more important, past -- 20 points? How can Denver have a pretty good day on offense?
Trying to poke holes in the Panthers' excellent defense isn't easy because, again, sadly for Broncos fans, they don't match up with Denver's strengths. Take the Panthers' ugly performance in short-yardage run defense. I mentioned early that Carolina has posted the league's worst success rate against short-yardage runs, with 87 percent of opponents succeeding.
If you think the Broncos have a shot, blowing the Panthers away in short-yardage situations would be a good way for them to get there. As is often the case with many undersized zone-blocking lines, though, Denver isn't especially effective trying to run the ball in short yardage, as its 61 percent success rate in power situations on offense ranks just 23rd in the league. Denver is one of the better teams in the league at manufacturing big plays with its ground game, but Kuechly & Co. have wiped away the ability to grab those huge chunks of yardage. Carolina has allowed only 36 runs of 10 yards or more this year, the fifth-lowest figure in the league.
Then there's the rare opportunity for teams to stretch one of the NFL's top defenses by going for a walk. Carolina's pass defense, the league's best unit by QBR (38.2) when passers stay in the pocket, is 25th in the league with a 71.1 QBR when quarterbacks step outside the pocket to make plays. It's not a huge sample -- 56 dropbacks -- but this Panthers defense is so good that taking a long drop or two outside the hashmarks is worth the risk.
But Gary Kubiak does not test opposing defenses by getting Manning out of the pocket. Just 5.7 percent of his dropbacks ended up with Manning outside the pocket, 39th among 43 qualifying quarterbacks during the regular season. Brock Osweiler is up at 27th, but even that's not particularly notable in terms of exploiting a Carolina weakness.
The obvious personnel mismatch in the Carolina secondary is worth a look. While the Panthers start all-world cornerback Josh Norman on one side of the field, injuries to Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman have left them perilously thin at cornerback. Street free agents Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan are close to every-snap players for the Panthers these days, and once the Seahawks tamed a dominant Panthers pass rush on the interior, they were able to throw at those weak links in the defensive backfield at will during their furious second-half comeback. Denver should have Emmanuel Sanders or Demaryius Thomas -- the latter of whom has just six catches for 52 yards on 15 targets this postseason -- against one of those middling cornerbacks on every play.
That's a huge mismatch, but the Cardinals were going to have John Brown and Michael Floyd against those same cornerbacks on every play, and Carson Palmer wasn't able to turn that paper mismatch into a viable advantage, thanks to steady pass pressure from Carolina. The Panthers have been able to get pressure on 30.6 percent of opposing dropbacks during the postseason, which is steady with their 28.7 percent rate from the regular season. This is a team without a great edge pass-rusher at the moment, but the interior of its rush -- notably penetrating tackle Kawann Short, who has five knockdowns in two games -- has been able to get after Palmer and Russell Wilson.
They should also be able to get after Manning. He was sacked three times by the Patriots on 35 dropbacks in the AFC Championship Game, and two of those sacks came on blitzes up the A-gap by linebacker Jamie Collins. (The third was a total whiff by the left side of their line.) The Panthers are able to both create pressure and the impending fear of pressure with their double A-gap pressure package, which is sometimes known as a pre-snap "mug" look from the defense.
Manning's preparation will naturally be on point, but he hasn't exhibited the sort of steady footwork needed to get away from early pressure up the gut, flailing and bailing out of the pocket to try to get away from those eventual sacks in the AFC Championship Game. And footsteps in the A-gaps will place enormous responsibility on inexperienced center Matt Paradis and guards Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez, neither of whom have performed at their once-dominant level of play this season. As important as it is for Manning to play well, so much of what the Broncos can do on offense may come down to whether the interior of their offensive line can keep their heads above water against Short, Star Lotulelei and Carolina's interior linebackers.
That's a group that will include star coverage 'backer Thomas Davis, who was the best player on the field in the NFC Championship Game before leaving with a broken arm. Davis returned to practice in full on Wednesday, which is the sort of thing you do when you've come back from three ACL tears to play the best football of your career. Davis and Kuechly are critical to Carolina's league-best minus-40.4 percent DVOA on throws to tight ends this year, and given how Manning turned to Owen Daniels for a pair of first-half touchdowns against New England, their presence is bad news for Denver's chances. The Panthers have allowed just two TD tosses to tight ends during the second half of the season. In fact, tight ends have just three red zone catches for 28 yards against the Panthers over that 10-game time frame.
The path to Denver scoring 20-plus points on offense is really, really difficult to trace. It involves some element that's impossible to predict, like a return touchdown against the Carolina offense or one on special teams. A kick or punt return touchdown might very well be a possibility, given that the Panthers rated well below average in both categories. The Panthers had the league's fifth-worst kick coverage and its eighth-worst punt coverage. Denver was roughly close to average on both types of returns, though, so it's hardly a significant advantage for Broncos special teams coach Joe DeCamillis to exploit.
Instead, the Denver offense is going to have to effectively execute something that the Panthers are very good at stopping. The Broncos are going to have to run the ball well on first down against the league's best first-and-10 run defense, or steadily complete screens and short passes against a group that has posted the fourth-best QBR in the league against throws within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Maybe they try to get a throw or two open downfield early to scare Carolina safeties Kurt Coleman and Roman Harper off of the line of scrimmage and create running lanes for C.J. Anderson, who simply has to get the bulk of the touches ahead of Ronnie Hillman. Given Manning's utter lack of arm strength in 2016, though, that's the easiest way for Denver to dial up a sequel to the Palmer performance of the NFC Championship Game. Even as the underdogs, it might be a better path for them to take a lower-variance approach and try to win a 13-10 game than a 24-21 contest. And even that may be asking a lot of Denver's offense.
As much as I thought earlier in the week that I was leaning toward the Broncos given the strength of their defense, I have to join the masses in getting behind the Panthers. This is just a bad matchup for the Broncos in so many ways, who would have been far happier to see the Cardinals in Santa Clara. It would take something dramatic -- such as a Newton meltdown or a game for the ages from Miller and Ware -- to push the Broncos over the line for their third Super Bowl title. Denver got one of those games from their star pass-rushing duo two Sundays ago. Asking for another one within 14 days is too much to ask. Panthers 24, Broncos 16.