Super Bowl 50: Who will be the X-factor?
1:22 | NFL
Super Bowl 50: Who will be the X-factor?
Tuesday February 2nd, 2016

There isn’t very much you need to tell players as they get ready for the Super Bowl. Even during the media rush of the week before, players are watching tape, coaches are breaking down tendencies, and practices are attuned to the most important game many of these individuals will ever see. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a little extra advice. Here are 10 bits of free wisdom for individual Broncos and Panthers players as Super Bowl 50 comes calling.

1. Cam Newton: Don’t throw under pressure.

Most running quarterbacks invite themselves into pressure. It’s often hard to run and have a total sense of the pocket at the same time, but Cam Newton doesn’t really have that problem at this point in his career. The fifth-year man and this year’s likely MVP is just as adept at zinging the ball downfield in the middle of the pocket as he is moving to throw and causing all sorts of havoc for the linebacker corps and secondaries tasked to follow him around.

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It’s not easy to find the Kryptonite for a quarterback built like Calvin Johnson who has thrown 27 touchdowns and three picks since Week 9 of the regular season, including his two playoff games. Right now, there’s no football player who poses a greater challenge to opponents than Newton does. But if you can manage to throw him off with legitimate pressure, that’s where Newton becomes ... well, if not vulnerable, at least mortal. Under pressure this season, Newton has completed just 51% of his passes, with six touchdowns and six interceptions.

That’s the good news for Denver’s defense. The bad news? Since Week 9, Newton has completed 53.8% of his passes under pressure, with six touchdowns and just one pick. The Broncos’ defense better hope for the early-season version of Cam Newton, because the one throwing the ball right now is a first-class pain to defeat.

2. Peyton Manning: Only throw deep if you’re sure.

It’s not exactly a state secret that Peyton Manning’s 39-year-old arm isn’t what it used to be, and as much as Gary Kubiak and Manning’s teammates may want to deny it, good old Father Time remains undefeated and he’s bearing down on Manning. In his two playoff games this season, Manning has thrown two touchdowns and no picks—both TDs went to tight end Owen Daniels in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. Throughout most of the season, he’s been merely managing the game.

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As is the case with most “game managers,” Manning has done nothing of import with the deep ball all season. On throws over 20 yards in the air this year, he is 11 of 51 for 472 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Most of his worst reads this season have come on the deep ball, and that has less to do with his mental acumen than with the fact that his arm simply can’t take commands from that beautiful football mind anymore. The Panthers will play Manning underneath most of the time, and he should only take the deep shot if he knows it’s a relatively sure thing.

3. C.J. Anderson: Get going in a hurry.

Unlike the offensive juggernaut that made it to Super Bowl XLVIII, this Broncos team is built on defense and the running game. With Manning’s obvious limitations, the ideal scenario for Denver is to have C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman putting their quarterback in favorable down-and-distance situations throughout the game. It’s also true that the only sure way to defend Newton at this point is to make sure he isn’t on the field. Anderson is Denver’s primary back, and he’s been at his most effective on third down and in the fourth quarter, which doesn’t always suit the ideal scenario mentioned above. Of his 720 yards in the regular season, Anderson picked up 228 in the fourth quarter (with a 5.1 yards per carry average) and averaged 10 yards per carry on third down. Though he has found the most success on later downs, Anderson has had most of his carries on first down (82 of 152), and while opposing coaches study such tendencies, the Broncos shouldn’t abandon their first-down plan. If Manning is thrown into second-and-long too often in the first half against Carolina’s defense, this thing could get ugly pretty quickly.

4. Denver’s defensive line: Hold your gaps, and stick to the plan.

Carolina’s run game is not just the NFL’s most effective, it’s also the most diverse from a schematic perspective, and it may be the most diverse the league has ever seen. Imagine the 49ers’ lethal combination of power/counter/trap blocking concepts combined with pre-snap motion and tight end/fullback moves under Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman. Then, add a quarterback in Cam Newton who can pick up chunk yardage out of power schemes in designed run packages, add Carolina’s vertical route concepts (which take multiple defenders downfield) and add the threat of receiver Ted Ginn Jr. as a reverse/sweep runner, and it’s all almost too much to take in.

The Broncos’ front seven is full of great run defenders, but that will not matter if they concern themselves too much with the first run look they see on Sunday and lose the gap integrity that’s crucial to countering that run game.

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“You have to take a different approach,” Broncos end Malik Jackson said Tuesday of holding Newton in. “Cam can kind of take off and do things with his legs—and you know he will as soon as he gets a chance. You definitely have got to make sure that if we’re rushing just four, we’ve got to be able to keep them in front of us and make sure that nobody is rushing behind the passer and that we just open up lanes for them. It’s definitely hard.”

It is a tall task, but defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his crew of coaches have the horses to combine quarterback pressure and run-stopping responsibility.

AP Photo/Kent Smith

5. Ryan Kalil, Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell: Show the Broncos what they haven’t seen.

Adding to the Broncos’ potential issues with Carolina’s run game is the simple fact that they haven’t seen a team like this all year. They did see the Seahawks and 49ers in the preseason, but teams don’t use their full playbooks in August. Perhaps the closest Denver has gotten to what the Panthers will do was its two meetings with the Chiefs, odd as it sounds. Kansas City has a handful of read-options plays with quarterback Alex Smith and the running back du jour. But the Chiefs don’t run the same type of blocking schemes the Panthers do, the Seahawks are a zone-blocking team for the most part, and the 49ers have changed their style since Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman left town. If center Ryan Kalil and guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell—an interior line trio that has given up no sacks and no hurries throughout the playoffs—are able to ramrod Denver’s front with complex pulls and counters, they can negate the Broncos’ power/speed advantage up front.

“They’re so fast, and I think the best way you can—you talk about how well they’re coached, and what a good job Wade [Phillips] does when you see them diagnose so quickly,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said of that front on Wednesday. “They get to the ball so fast even on the misdirection stuff. They seem to find the ball quick and they’re swarming to the ball.”

What Shula almost seemed to say there was that Denver’s speed on defense can be used against them. We’ll see if that’s the case in Super Bowl 50.

6. Brandon Marshall: Take Greg Olsen up the seam, but bring help with you.

While the Panthers have gotten by pretty well with a suboptimal group of receivers, tight end Greg Olsen is unquestionably one of the best at his position in the league. When Newton needs a matchup nightmare to get the ball downfield, he’ll ask Olsen to exploit his size, route awareness and understanding of defenses, and it generally works like a charm. Both Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan are experts in intermediate coverage, which is actually one of this game’s undersold stories—for all the talk about Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis covering well, Marshall and Trevathan tend to get short-shrifted. But the Broncos ranked eighth in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics against tight ends this year, and they’ve faced more of the league’s prominent tight ends than the Panthers have.

With Olsen, the best plan may be to have the inside linebackers take him up the seam, where safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart can complete the coverage. Cornerback Chris Harris sounded confident in that plan this week, which may indicate that Ward and Stewart are progressing nicely through their individual injury protocols.

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“I can’t really get into it too much of what we’re going to do, but Greg Olsen, he’s definitely one of the dynamic tight ends,” Harris said Monday. “They use him kind of like a receiver and we definitely have to be ready for him. We have a great test of tight ends this whole season—we’ve seen Gronk twice, we saw [Chiefs tight end] Travis Kelce twice and we’ve been battle-tested when it comes to tight ends and I like our chances with the safeties.”

Gronkowski caught eight passes for 144 yards and a touchdown in the AFC Championship Game, and six passes for 88 yards and a score in Denver’s regular-season overtime win. Kelce caught nine passes for 94 yards in Denver’s two games against the Chiefs. So, the Broncos do have a lot of history in 2015 with teams who count tight ends as their top receivers. Their mixed success in those matchups is a story, though—and Olsen could be a difference-maker here.

G. Newman Lowrance via AP

7. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis: Watch out for Owen Daniels.

Peyton Manning has more impressive receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but Thomas has been up-and-down this season, while Sanders has fulfilled his role as a great second receiver in speed slot/outside roles. But when it comes to touchdowns for Manning as of late, it’s been all about Owen Daniels, the veteran tight end who caught all three scores Manning threw at home this year. It was Daniels who abused New England linebacker Jamie Collins in coverage for two touchdowns to help the Broncos to get to the Super Bowl, and the Panthers are vulnerable to better tight ends sitting down in their zone coverage concepts. As I detailed this week, Seattle’s Jimmy Graham was the best tight end the Panthers have faced so far this season, and Graham torched both Kuechly and Davis on seam stuff for a total of eight catches on 12 targets for 140 yards in a Week 6 Carolina win. Daniels isn’t the athlete Graham is, but few tight ends better understand how to exploit coverage in the short-to-intermediate passing game. And the short-to-intermediate passing game is pretty much all that Manning has left.

“His experience is tremendous for us, having been around it for a long time,” Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said of Daniels this week. “He’s just a great player—tough guy, plays hard, knows what to do and then he works all the zones inside. It’s tough for them to match up. He can find a place to get open and he does a great job with that. He’s a very versatile player. You ask him to do something, he’ll do it.”

The Panthers may want to follow Daniels with more man coverage concepts, which leads us to another issue...

8. Josh Norman: Follow the leader.

With cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Bené​ Benwikere out with injuries, Carolina has had to mix and match coverage pairings with star cornerback Josh Norman since the final weeks of the regular season. Norman may have been the NFL’s best cover corner this season, and whichever receiver he’s on will probably not have an exceptional day (unless he wants to try beating Norman up like Odell Beckham Jr. did). But as previously detailed, Denver’s receiver corps is in flux right now, and Manning isn’t the most efficient passer. If Manning spreads the ball around, that puts more pressure on substitute cornerbacks Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan.

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Both men were afterthoughts in the league before their recent starting turns, but they’ve held up pretty well. Finnegan was toast as an outside corner, but he’s done a credible job in the slot, and McClain has played well despite the obvious increase in targets to his side. But if Manning gets hot with one receiver—our bet is Sanders—Norman may have to follow that receiver around more than he usually does. Denver’s clear counter-tactic would be to put Sanders in the slot, where Norman doesn’t usually go: He played just 12 snaps in the slot this season, with three targets and a touchdown allowed.

9. Denver secondary: Steal the schemes that beat your offense in Super Bowl XLIX.

In a 43–8 loss to Seattle two years ago, Denver’s underneath receivers were drilled over and over whenever they tried the middle of the field against the Seahawks’ tough defense. Safety Kam Chancellor (who should have been the game’s MVP) and linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright put severe hits on Thomas and any other Manning target who dared to try any type of slant, drag route or in-breaking concept. Broncos EVP John Elway used that devastating loss to inform the rebuilding of his own defense, and he now has the guys to do to Carolina’s receivers what Seattle’s Legion of Boom once did to his own. Strong safety T.J. Ward could be the key factor as an enforcer of the short inside stuff. Match that with Denver’s preference to play super-aggressive outside coverage, and it could force Newton to make throws he doesn’t want to make.

Ric Tapia via AP

10. Brock Osweiler: Stay ready.

So, here’s a situation that could easily happen in Super Bowl 50: The Panthers get out to a big lead in the first half—say, two touchdowns or so. Manning is playing at a decent level, but he’s not guiding the kind of accurate explosiveness required to overcome such a deficit, especially if Carolina knows the Broncos have to throw the ball and can tee off on Manning without fear getting burned.

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Denver’s first-year head coach has already proven that he doesn’t care about the veteran’s legacy at the expense of the young understudy, and he has also proven that he’ll bench that understudy if the veteran has a better handle on things. Osweiler’s turn as the starter began in mid-November against the Chiefs after Manning threw four picks, driving Kubiak to pull him in the third quarter. Kubiak then flipped the script in the regular-season finale against the Chargers, replacing Osweiler with Manning in the third quarter and subsequently announcing that Manning would start as long as the Broncos went.

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That said, Osweiler was the starter for Denver’s two biggest comeback wins of the season—a 30–24 overtime win against the Patriots, in which the Broncos overcame a 14-point deficit, and the 20–17 overtime win against the Bengals, when Denver clinched a playoff spot and chased down a 14-point first-half Cincinnati lead.

“I think he deserves a great deal of credit,” Kubiak said Wednesday of Osweiler. “He had our football team for seven starts. We won some big games with him. We come back 14 down against Cincinnati, 14 down against New England, and Brock was at the helm. We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t all 53 of those [players] and we’ve lost some guys along the way. But he definitely did his part. He did a hell of a job when he was in there.”

You never know—he may do it again. This is the first year Osweiler got a shot as a true starter, even though he was selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, and he’s proven that tough moments aren’t too big for him. Perhaps a switch in this game could turn things in Denver’s favor and bring the Broncos their third Super Bowl.

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