The final score of 24-10 suggests a decisive victory for the Denver Broncos, but the box score indicates a closer game, and one where many statistics tilted in favor of the losing Carolina Panthers. Dave Archibald explores the hidden game of Super Bowl 50.
The Panthers outgained the Broncos significantly, 315 yards to 194, tallied 21 first downs to Denver’s 11, and ran 19 more plays on offense, resulting in five-and-a-half more minutes of possession. Obviously, those statistics don’t entirely capture the story of the game. The hidden game of Super Bowl 50 shows how the events of the game ‒ field position and down-and-distances ‒ had a decisive bearing on the final outcome.
The turnover battle often decides the game, and Super Bowl 50 was no exception. The Broncos edged the Panthers in this department, notching four takeaways to Carolina’s two. Some of that was fortune ‒ a pass tipped off receiver Ted Ginn Jr.’s hands landed in the hands of safety T.J. Ward. Denver recovered five of the seven fumbles in the game while mistakes by the Panthers and an opportunistic Broncos defense created the game’s biggest plays.
What made the turnover edge decisive wasn’t just the number of turnovers but where they happened. The Ward interception and a lost fumble by fullback Mike Tolbert ended promising Carolina drives, but the real killers were the two strip sacks by Denver edge rusher Von Miller. One was recovered in the end zone by Malik Jackson for a touchdown, while the other was recovered on the Carolina 4-yard-line, setting up another easy score. Had those occurred in the middle of the field, the swarming Panthers defense would have had an excellent chance to hold an anemic Denver offense to a field goal. But with Carolina already buried in its own territory, those lost fumbles turned into the only touchdowns for the Broncos. On a night where points were hard to come by for both offenses, Carolina couldn’t overcome those killer turnovers.
Critical Special Teams
A major reason the Panthers were boxed in on both strip sacks was the third phase of the game: special teams. Carolina outgained the Broncos by 121 yards on the day, but Denver flipped the script with excellent special teams, particularly from punter Britton Colquitt and the punt coverage unit. Colquitt averaged 46 yards per punt and less than a yard per return.
Moreover, the Panthers committed two penalties on returns. The net average for Denver’s punt team was a whopping 52 yards before a short kick with a minute left and the contest well in hand. Meanwhile, Panthers punter Brad Nortman was inconsistent, and the Panthers coverage team allowed a Super-Bowl-record 61-yard return. The Broncos outgained Carolina by 158 yards on punts, erasing the edge Carolina had moving the ball.
These hidden yards impacted the game everywhere. Colquitt’s first punt went for 50 yards with a negative-1-yard return, placing the Panthers on their own 15-yard-line. That set the stage for Miller’s first strip sack. The 61-yard return from Denver’s Jordan Norwood came off a 28-yard punt from Carolina’s 47-yard-line. That was a great opportunity to pin the Broncos deep and set up a field position advantage, and instead Carolina’s special teams not only squandered that edge but handed Denver three points.
Late in the third quarter, Colquitt punted from his own 15. He unleashed a 54-yard rocket that Ginn returned 3 yards. Carolina’s return team also committed a 15-yard penalty, pushing the offense back to its own 19. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Colquitt was Denver’s best offensive player; while he didn’t put points on the board directly, he flipped field position for the Broncos all night.
Third Down Blues
Both strip sacks came deep in Carolina territory, but importantly both also occurred on 3rd-and-long, giving the Broncos pass rushers the opportunity to pin their ears back and pursue Panthers MVP quarterback Cam Newton. The Panthers converted 2 of 3 third downs opportunities in 3rd-and-7 or shorter, but only 2 of 13 3rd-and-8 or longer situations, and one of those came as a result of a taunting penalty after a sack. Four of Denver’s six sacks of Newton came on 3rd-and-long.
The Panthers averaged only 5.2 yards per dropback on first and second down, but that’s a Greatest-Show-on-Turf-esque performance compared to the 1.6 yards per dropback they averaged on 3rd down. When the Broncos had to respect the run and the pass, Carolina had limited bursts of success. But as the Panthers became one-dimensional, the offense shut down and the Denver pass rush owned the advantage. The biggest play in the game, Miller’s strip sack that extended the Broncos lead to 10-0, illustrates this:
On 3rd-and-10, Newton (#1) lines up in an empty backfield with tight end Greg Olsen (#88) and Tolbert (#35) aligned on the left and right wing, respectively. This look gives Carolina the ability to protect Newton with more blockers. It also gives Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips the opportunity to put more rushers on the line of scrimmage and sow confusion about who is rushing.
Denver lines up with six players on the line of scrimmage. At the snap, down linemen Jackson (#97) and Derek Wolfe (#95) rush the B gaps, while outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (#94) loops around the middle of the formation. Ward (#43) and linebacker Danny Trevathan (#59) drop into underneath zones, but Carolina has already accounted for them in the blocking scheme. Right tackle Mike Remmers (#74) initially looks at Trevathan, respecting the blitz, before blocking ‒ or attempting to block ‒ Miller (#58).
Tolbert sets as if he’s going to block Miller but then releases into his route, not even delivering a chip block on the edge rusher. Whether this was by design or Tolbert’s decision, it put Remmers in a poor spot. Tolbert is open on a shallow drag, but on 3rd-and-10 he would need a significant run after the catch to pick up the first down. Newton appears to be looking Tolbert’s way but stalls, perhaps waiting for the fullback to clear Ward’s zone so he has a better opportunity to run. That momentary hesitation is all the time Miller needs to get to Newton and rip the ball out.
Stopping Things Early
The Broncos were able to force so many third-and-longs by stuffing the run on early downs. Carolina’s overall numbers ‒ 27 carries for 118 yards ‒ make it appear the Panthers were able to get the ground game going, but in reality they struggled. Newton scrambled three times for 26 yards, which means on designed running plays Carolina gained just 92 yards on 24 carries, a mediocre 3.8 yards per carry. Lead back Jonathan Stewart carried 12 times but compiled only 29 yards.
Denver possesses an excellent run defense, ranking first in the NFL at 3.3 yards allowed per carry. While edge rushers Miller and Ware get the sacks and the glory, interior threats Jackson and Wolfe wreak havoc as well. The Panthers offensive line, particularly the interior, was underrated and effective all season, but they were no match for Denver’s weapons up front.
The Broncos’ front seven talent is no secret, but what was unclear heading into the game was how effectively the group would deal with the variety of formations, looks, and pre-snap shifts that Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula sent their way. They passed the test with flying colors:
The Panthers line up in the shotgun on 2nd-and-10 at the 15-yard-line with twins left and two tight ends right. The Broncos counter with a Cover 1 look, with one deep safety and both cornerbacks on the offensive left side, lined up over the receivers. With just one deep safety, Cover 1 allows Denver to stack the box against run looks, which it does here, deploying all seven of the 3-4 base personnel within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage. They moved Ward over the outside shoulder of the outside tight end, 5 yards off. Shula tosses a curveball Denver’s way, sending slot receiver Corey Brown (#10) in motion in a jet sweep look and man defender Aqib Talib (#21) follows the receiver.
Initially, it appears that the Panthers have this inside zone run well-blocked. On the outside, Miller hesitates, having to respect Brown’s motion and the possibility Newton will keep the ball on the read option. Remmers and right guard Trai Turner (#70) are able to work up to the second level and get solid blocks on Denver’s linebackers. The first-level blocks, however, fall apart, with Olsen and center Ryan Kalil (#67) failing to wall off Wolfe (#95) and Vance Walker (#96), respectively. Stewart (#28) attempts to bounce the run back left in order to avoid their penetration, but Wolfe dives at the back’s legs and takes him down for no gain.
Denver’s run stuff set up a 3rd-and-10, a situation where the defense can sell out against the pass and the offense has limited chance of success. The very next play was Miller’s strip sack. If the Panthers could have managed a modest 4- or 5-yard gain to set up a shorter third down opportunity, it might have expanded the playbook for Shula and the Panthers. But Carolina lost too many one-on-one battles inside on running downs, putting them in 3rd-and-long too often, and this let Denver’s dominant edge rushers impact the game.
Few would call Denver’s Super Bowl victory pretty, and the game was sloppy at times on both sides, but the Broncos’ win was no fluke. They made the right plays in the right place at the right time, by putting themselves in the right place at the right time. Their punting team, led by Colquitt, gave Denver the field position edge throughout. Their run defense put Carolina in third-and-long situations where they had to pass. That played into the strength of the Broncos defense ‒ the pass rush ‒ and they did their thing, creating the key turnovers that led to Denver’s only touchdowns. In a defensive struggle, those factors proved the key to the game, and to a Super Bowl victory.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.