Super Bowl 50 Preview: When Denver Has The Ball

Super Bowl 50 features the Carolina Panthers against the Denver Broncos. Ted Nguyen looks at the Broncos offense versus the Panthers defense, and what will happen when Denver has the ball, in part 2 of his game preview.

Though the Carolina offense often outshines their defensive counterparts, the Panthers defense has played well themselves this season, finishing the regular season sixth in total defense. For that matter, forcing six turnovers ‒ as the Panthers did in the NFC championship game against the Arizona Cardinals ‒ will cause any opponent to take notice.

Meanwhile, the Broncos offense has struggled all season, finishing just nineteenth in scoring. Elway hired Gary Kubiak hoping that he would install his outside zone running game that had flourished in Houston to complement the a revamped defense. An improved run game would take the game out of Peyton Manning’s hands – or so it was hoped – but the injury-riddled Broncos offensive line has lacked consistency, averaging only 3.3 yards per rush in the postseason.

Once again, the Broncos find themselves relying on an aging Manning.

The Stout Opposition

On the other side of the ball, Carolina sports a star-studded (no pun intended) defense featuring Star Lotulelei, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Josh Norman. While Norman is one of the best corners in the NFL, Carolina has been rotating well-past-their-prime defensive backs in Roman Harper, Cortland Finnegan, and – until his season ended in injury – Charles Tillman.

Replacing Tilman is journeyman corner Robert McClain, who was unemployed seven weeks ago. He has been starting since in the final quarter of the regular season. Coach Ron Rivera even admitted, “I’m not going to say [Finnegan and McClain] got it down completely. But they’re still learning and competing.” According to PFF, McClain is the most-targeted cornerback in the playoffs so far, giving up 143 yards and two touchdowns in two games.

Denver, of course, has two stud pass catchers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and Norman can only cover only one one at a time against Manning who, even in his old age, can still make an opponent pay by picking on mismatches:

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Disguise & Deception

One reason that the Panthers have been so successful defending the pass, despite their lack of depth in the secondary, is their ability to disguise coverages. Oftentimes, they don’t rotate their safeties until the ball is snapped, causing indecision on the part of the quarterback:

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Here, it is first down in the second quarter and the Cardinals run one of their staple plays: the sail concept on one side – a Cover 3 beater – with a slant/seam combo on the other – a play that effectively attacks two-high safeties. The Panthers show two-high safety pre-snap, so Carson Palmer looks first to the slant/seam combo to his left.

The defense rotates into a Cover 3 and defends the initial seam window with Kurt Coleman rolling to cover the inside wall. Palmer holds on to the ball and hitches twice, giving the Panthers rush enough time to strip sack him.

If It Worked For Eli…

If Peyton can unravel the Panthers’ scheme, he can take advantage of the late adjustments required to disguise coverages that the Panthers employ. For example, in Week 15 the Panthers played the New York Giants led by Peyton’s brother, Eli Manning. Down 35-7 late in the third quarter Manning appeared to figure out the Panthers’ coverage disguises, prompting a furious comeback that included three touchdowns passes in the fourth quarter.

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Here, the Panthers secondary shows a two-high look similar to that it gave Palmer above. When Manning snaps the ball, the corners bail into deep thirds and the safeties roll to Cover 3. But because the safety rotation happens so late, the free safety Coleman is unable to make a play on the deep seam and Manning is able to complete a long pass.

It is not far-fetched to assume that Eli will discuss his success in the second half of that game with Peyton; as good as the Panthers defense has been, there are holes in the secondary that Peyton can take advantage of if he can diagnose their disguises.

Changing The Play

When Denver runs the ball, they will have a tough task ahead of them in moving defensive tackles, Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Also, the speed of Kuechly and Davis who has vowed to play in the Super Bowl team despite breaking his arm will be trouble for the Broncos rushing attack, especially when trying to run Kubiak’s bread and butter outside zone plays. For Denver to effectively run the ball, Peyton is going to have to audible out of pass plays in favorable situations like he did against New England.

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(NOTE: Audio in above video, turn down your speakers)

On this first down play the Broncos are in the high redzone running 12 personnel. Manning sees that the defense has a dime package out and recognizes that they have a physical advantage. He makes a kill call, negating one of the run / pass pre-snap audibles. The Broncos probably had two plays called: The “killed” play was a likely a pass, so the offense knows to execute the second call an outside zone run to the right. The line does a nice job of making their double teams and getting to the second level, and C.J. Anderson is able to run for an eight yard gain.

The biggest X-factor for the Denver offense is Peyton’s mind and game knowledge. Expect the Broncos to utilize more no-huddle this game to disrupt communication for a Panthers defense that wants to use elaborate coverage disguises and delayed blitzes. Providing Manning more time at the line to diagnose the rolls and disguises, and giving him more time to call audibles and checks puts this offense in the best position to succeed.

For his part, Rivera is sure to add some new looks to an already deceptive scheme to neutralize Manning’s maneuvering. So the question is: How quickly can Manning sort out the Panthers defense?

Follow Ted on Twitter @RaidersAnalysis

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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