Super Bowl 50 Preview: When Carolina Has The Ball

Super Bowl 50 features the Carolina Panthers against the Denver Broncos. Ted Nguyen looks at the Panthers offense versus the Broncos defense, and what will happen when Carolina has the ball, in part 1 of his game preview.

The overwhelming public opinion says the Panthers are going to dominate the Broncos in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. After suffering their first loss of the season in Week 16, the Panthers have steamrolled their last three opponents by an average of 23 points per game. Cam Newton pilots the top scoring offense in the NFL this season. The combination of Carolina’s spread runs and splash pass plays has left defenses scratching their heads.

Meanwhile, the Broncos have taken a more difficult road to the Super Bowl, only narrowly defeating their playoff opponents by an average of 4.5 points per game. In the playoffs, Peyton Manning has smoothly transitioned into the role of a game-manager by avoiding big mistakes and relying on Denver’s defense to win games. The former five-time MVP hasn’t thrown an interception but is completing just 55.1% of his passes in the postseason. The Broncos’ problems when Manning drops back to pass have been exacerbated by the lack of a running game, which is averaging a modest 3.3 yards per rush. Manning, to his credit, has made big throws when needed and made excellent pre-snap adjustments. Super Bowl 50 is going to be a classic battle between the league’s top offense and the top defense.

Carolina’s Offense vs. Denver’s Defense

The Broncos led the league in total defense and sacks in the regular season. All-Pro cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. are complemented by safeties and linebackers that cover well. Von Miller and Demarcus Ware wreak havoc off the edge, while the strong interior of the defensive line makes it extremely difficult to move the ball on the ground. The defense dominated the New England Patriots’ third-ranked scoring offense for most of the AFC Championship Game.

Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula utilizes spread concepts to give the Panthers a numerical advantage in the run game. When a defense loads the box, the Panthers have dialed up punishing big plays with Greg Olsen, Ted Ginn Jr., and Corey Brown.

Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, however, can take away the numbers advantage with his 3-4 defense. The Broncos can get away with loading the box because they have the best man-to-man secondary in the league. Carolina’s receivers are better than people give them credit for, but – aside from Olsen – they all have major flaws that Denver’s cover personnel can exploit. For example, Ginn still has top-notch speed but his physicality and consistency catching the ball leave much to be desired.

Neutralizing the Numbers

Phillips can even out the numbers in the box in two ways: he can put an extra person inside the box or he can two-gap his defensive linemen. Two-gapping is used by college defensive coaches, like LSU’s David Aranda, against spread teams to account for the quarterback. Mike Kuchar at X&O Labs explains:

“So, after years of toiling with it, (Dave) Aranda has changed to a more unconventional methodology when attacking the read zone schemes, and it comes in the name of equating numbers in the run game by two-gapping players across the board.”

Two-gapping isn’t new to Phillips, it is a technique that is vital to making the 3-4 defense work:

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Two-Gap-video-1.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/two-gap-still.jpg”]

Although the Kansas City Chiefs zone read with Alex Smith isn’t nearly as effective as Carolina’s with Newton, we can see how Denver defends the zone read. There are seven defenders against eight offensive players in the box. Derek Wolfe (#95), circled, is the only lineman playing two gaps on the backside, and he gets a great punch before controlling the blocker. This allows linebacker Miller (#58) to stay home and account for the cutback as well as the quarterback.

Two-gapping requires a strong defensive line that is well-versed in this technique to control offensive linemen rather than shoot gaps. Denver has interior D-linemen like Wolfe, who finished with the six highest PFF rating vs the run. Two-gapping also allows Denver to stay in its base Cover 1 without compromising its secondary.

Playing Quarters

The Broncos also could play quarters, or Cover 4, behind their 3-4 front, which would allow them to keep seven men in the box even when the offense flexes out to a four-wide formation:Quarters Front (1)

Quarters is a popular answer for problems that the spread offense presents. College teams like TCU and Michigan State have made names for themselves by shutting down some of the best college spread offenses using quarters:quarters coverage

The weakness of quarters, however, is that it can leave the secondary in a lot of 1-on-1 situations:

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In the NFC Championship Game against Arizona, several of Newton’s big throws were against quarters. However, throwing against Denver’s quarters should be much more difficult. Denver’s secondary players finished with an average 81.1 PFF rating against the pass, which is a staggering 6.2 points higher than the Cardinals’ secondary PFF rating average of 74.9. Also, the loss of nickel corner, Tyrann Mathieu, significantly impacted the game, as slot receiver Corey Brown torched the Cardinal secondary.  The Broncos’ mix of man coverage and quarters should be able to hold up against Carolina’s passing attack.

Consistently Inconsistent

As great as Newton has been this season, his accuracy is still inconsistent, as he completed 59.7% of his regular-season passes even with defenses loading the box to stop the run. The Broncos have to force him to make accurate throws with tight coverage, which the Cardinals failed to do:

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Newton has tight end Ed Dickson wide open but misses because of his inconsistent accuracy.

The True 3-4

If the Broncos are forced to take defenders out of the box to help against the pass on early downs, Carolina is going to have success running the ball like it did against the Cardinals. When Arizona played a true 3-4, it was able to shut down Carolina’s run game. However, the Cardinals weren’t able to stay in 3-4 for a majority of the game because Newton made them pay with deep passes early in the game. The clip below shows two of the Panthers’ bread-and-butter run concepts being stuffed when the Cardinals were in a true 3-4:

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Cardinals-3-4.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/cardinals-3-4-still.jpg”]

The first clip shows the Panthers’ vaunted QB power option against the 3-4. Even though the Cardinals get caught in a slant away from the play, the number of defenders in the box forces the offense to be perfect with its blocks, but the pulling guard misses his block – leading to a loss of yardage. In the second clip, the Panthers are running a split field zone read with a pitch option. They gashed the defense with this concept twice in the game, but when the Cardinals are in a 3-4, using two-gappers, they were able to easily account for the running back, quarterback and pitchman.

After the Broncos were embarrassed by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, general manager John Elway transformed the team from an offensive juggernaut to a defensive stalwart led by a stifling secondary. That secondary is going to be put to the test against the number one overall offense. If they shut down the pass, while being put on an island for much of the game, the defense is going to be in great position to do what few teams were able to do this season: shut down the Panthers.

Follow Ted on Twitter @Raiders Analysis

Ted Nguyen is a former player and coach who has written about the Raiders run/pass packages, the Patriots use of formations to get favorable matchups, and the spread passing game.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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