Another week, another dominant performance by the Carolina Panthers. The 49-15 demolition of Arizona in the NFC Championship has many NFL fans scratching their heads, wondering if we’ve seen the best Carolina has to offer yet.
After storming through the regular season to a league-best record of 15-1 and (mostly) handling the sleepy Seahawks in the Divisional Round, the Panthers showcased many of the elements against the Cardinals that made them the NFL’s best team throughout the year – a dynamic talent at quarterback having an MVP-caliber season, a deceptive running game focused on slowing the pass rush, and an opportunistic defense built around stopping the run.
On February 7, they’ll face arguably their most difficult test yet in Denver’s punishing top-ranked defense and vaunted pass rush – not to mention a certain sanguine first-ballot Hall-of-Famer looking for one last shot to state his case as the greatest quarterback of all-time in Peyton Manning.
But Carolina are a calm, collected bunch – when they’re not cutting up and being silly, of course. The moment doesn’t seem to ever get too big for them, and they certainly haven’t deviated from what’s worked this season. If they show up to San Francisco with a similar game plan and mindset as they had against Arizona and Seattle, it will take more than a good story to beat these Panthers.
Scouting Report: Wade into the Deep
Despite all of the ink spilled over Peyton vs. Cam, the real marquee matchup for Super Bowl 50 is Carolina’s 1st-ranked offense vs. Denver’s 1st-ranked defense. With talent at every level, the Broncos are extremely well-rounded, but the meat of their defense is the pass rush generated by a bevy of athletic rush ends and linebackers, led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Denver generates considerable pressure with only a four-man rush; however, they still blitz 41.7% of the time for one of the highest rates in the league (a blitz defined as sending five or more pass rushers).
However, Denver’s defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, had to go and make things interesting against New England in the AFC Championship Game – he completely reversed tendencies and only called a blitz 16.4% of the time, less than he’s called in a single game in eight years. It was a gamble that paid handsomely because Ware and Miller delivered spectacular individual performances – harassing Tom Brady and making him look human for most of the game. New England didn’t have an answer or a running game to compensate for the rush and never committed to getting one going either. The question now becomes: will Phillips revert to his old tendencies or could this game plan be more than just a one-off strategy to thwart Brady and co.?
The most obvious difference between this year’s and last year’s Carolina teams is Newton’s continued development in the passing game – as evidenced by his MVP season. One of his biggest improvements is his passing vs. the blitz. Cam led the NFL this season with 19 TD passes against the blitz (adding two more against the Cardinals), turning what used to be a liability into an asset. In fact, over the last three seasons, Cam was blitzed on 37.8% of his dropbacks (good for second-highest in the league over that timeframe) and conventional wisdom held that Newton could be pressured into making mistakes. Against the blitz this season, however, Cam lifted his total QBR from 74 (averaged from his first four seasons) to 80.4, posted a 59.2 completion percentage, while only throwing 3 interceptions – all career-bests. His ability to stand tall and deliver passes against the rush is a testament to his desire to win and potentially do so with his arm, if need be. But that’s not the whole story, and it undersells another key improvement area for Carolina.
The single-most underrated unit for the Panthers remains the offensive line. The oft-maligned group from a year ago was constantly reshuffled throughout the year as Coach Ron Rivera and GM Dave Gettleman desperately tried to assemble a unit around reliable Center Ryan Kalil that could protect Newton. By the end of the season, a solid rotation began to develop with young guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner – and with the mid-season addition of right-tackle Mike Remmers – the group finally began to gel in the final months of last season. The Panthers offensive line wasn’t solidified, however, until cast-off left tackle Michael Oher was signed for a bargain price in free agency last March. This helped drop Newton’s sack rate vs. the blitz from 9.2% during his first four seasons down to 6.7%, and his overall sack rate from 8.3% down to 6.2% – both career-bests.
Whether they’re mauling defensive lineman in short-yardage situations, pulling wide on sweeps, or blocking with their running backs/quarterback 35 yards downfiel, the Panthers line has earned their reputation as one of the best lines in the league this year, especially in the run-game. Credit is due in no small part to the innovative schemes under coordinator Mike Shula. His offense has been a revelation this year – a fully-realized hybrid of zone-read option concepts, Power-QB runs, and Jet-sweeps; run out of every conceivable Wing-back, Shotgun and traditional formation (with a few creative wrinkles added as the game goes on).
The Panthers have used this offense to slow down and beat the pass rush all year – not with power, but with deception – ending the season with the best rushing attack in the NFL. The added responsibility of accounting for both Newton as a runner, in addition to all of the their misdirection, fakes, and pulling lineman – through all of their odd formations and mid-game tweaks – has consistently confused linebackers throughout the season. And a hesitating linebacker is a beaten linebacker. This will be critical come Super Bowl Sunday, too, because Carolina’s offense is easily the most balanced attack Denver has faced so far. If the offensive line can open up running lanes against the Broncos like they did against Seattle – statistically, the 1st-ranked run-defense (Denver is 3rd) – they will be able to slow down the pass rush and buy Cam extra time in the pocket, in addition to the rushing offense they generate.
The simple truth is that there is no blueprint yet for defending Cam and the Panthers offense. For most of the season, defensive coordinators keyed-in on Greg Olsen – believing that if they took away Cam’s #1 receiver, they could make him one-dimensional – but this proved to be an ineffective strategy. Not only did Carolina use Olsen to remove a defender (and sometimes two) from the play completely, Newton was often able to accurately beat the coverage when passing to him anyway – such was the improvement in his accuracy. Other teams stacked the box to stop the run and demanded Newton beat them with his arm, which he did…convincingly. Still others tried to stymie Cam by only rushing four and mixing up their zone-coverages – which just made it easier for Carolina to pick up 5-yard-chunk run-plays behind their road-grader offensive line for 8-minute, 80-yard drives.
In the end, the ultimate strength of the Panthers offense is its flexibility –they can beat you in multiple ways and adapt to whatever you try to take away.
I suspect this knowledge is keeping Wade Phillips locked away in a log cabin somewhere in the Colorado Rockies right now with night-sweats, a fifth of whiskey and a carton of Marlboro’s – pacing back and forth in front of a dry erase board, muttering to himself, determined to be the first man to solve the riddle.
Good luck, Wade. I never thought Brady and Belichick would look like a warm-up.
“Beating a Dead Horse”
The less heralded matchup going into Super Bowl Sunday is the Panthers’ defense vs. Peyton Manning and the inconsistent Broncos offense. Ranked 19th overall in scoring, the Broncos are the 2nd-lowest-ranked offense to ever make the Super Bowl – behind only the 2008 Steelers.
But that Pittsburgh team won the Super Bowl. And they had the 1st-ranked defense that year too…and defense wins championships, as the saying goes…so they’ve got this thing in the bag, right?
Not so fast. That Steelers team benefitted from playing a historically bad Super Bowl defense. The ’08-09 Cardinals had the 28th-ranked overall defense and the worst rushing defense in the league that season.
Unlike those Cardinals, the Panthers have the 2nd-ranked rushing defense, the #1 turnover margin in the league, and the 6th-ranked overall defense this year. Carolina boasts a central defensive triangle that is as good as any in football. It starts up front with their defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and All-Pro Kawann Short. Together, they’ve been clogging running lanes and crushing lineman into the pocket all year long – creating the kind of interior pressure that drives less-than-mobile quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady crazy. They will rely on those two to create pressure early and often – like they did against Seattle and Arizona – to pressure Manning into mistakes and turnovers. And if the Panthers gain an early lead, it could mean a long day for Peyton.
Denver may try to neutralize the interior rush by running the ball away from the teeth of Carolina’s defense, but just behind those defensive tackles lurks the Panthers’ best defensive player – all-World middle linebacker and captain of the defense, Luke Kuechly. Rangy, cerebral, and athletic as hell, he is the phantom that haunts Carolina’s defense. Just when you think it’s safe to throw the football – because there’s no way a linebacker could pop-up there – POOF! Interception returned for a touchdown. Or game-saving deflection 35-yards down the field.
Kuechly’s presence on the field can’t be understated. He doesn’t take false steps. He calls out signals for the defense (and sometimes calls out the offense’s signals too). ProFootballFocus.com selected him as their 2015 Coverage Defender of the Year – a very, very unusual honor for a linebacker – and he remains a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year as well (an award he won in just his second year in the league in 2013). Most importantly, he’s one of the best run-defenders in the NFL. If the Broncos want to beat Carolina, they’ll have to game plan for Kuechly and the two interior defensive linemen clearing the way for him. Otherwise, they’re setting Manning up for a public execution.
No matter how you slice it, Peyton has his work cut out for him if he wants to ride into the sunset hoisting a Lombardi Trophy over his head. The Carolina Panthers are going to San Francisco with anything but flowers in their hair or summertime lovin’ on their minds. Expect Carolina to do exactly what they’ve done all year long – hit Denver early and often with a variety of calculated runs specifically to confuse and slow down the Broncos’ pass rush.
It will ultimately come down to whether or not Denver’s defense can hold the score down long enough to allow Manning to string together enough drives to outscore Carolina – that, a little luck, and some poor-play from the Panthers too.
Likewise, if Carolina’s pass rush begins to reach Manning and the Broncos running game is stalling – Denver fans might want to look away before the flashbacks start. Make no mistake, this Panthers team is younger, bigger, faster, and more well-rounded than the Broncos. If Denver expects to have a chance, they will have to play mistake-free football (and possibly chip in a non-offensive score too) – otherwise, Sunday, Feb 7th could amount to a coronation of the new fresh-faced “It-Team” of the NFL –The Carolina Panthers.