On a night when Peyton Manning won for what may be the last time, it was Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and the rest the marauding defense that made the difference in the Super Bowl 50 win over the Panthers
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — One day after Cam Newton was crowned the NFL’s most valuable player, the league’s best defense showed it was too much even for the league’s best player. The Broncos held Newton to just 18 of 41 passing and sacked him six times en route to their 24-10 win. This was a victory that belonged to Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, fellow pass-rushing force DeMarcus Ware and the rest of a defense that proved it deserves mention with any great unit that’s carried a wanting offense to a championship.
In the wake of his remarkable year, Newton finished with his worst line of the entire season. Denver’s seven sacks (they also had one on Ted Ginn on a broken gadget play) were the most Carolina allowed all season, and two of them provided the Broncos with the most significant plays they’d get in the entire game. Two weeks after shredding the Patriots’ offensive line, Von Miller tore past right tackle Mike Remmers on a third-and-10 at the Carolina 15 and rocked Newton hard enough to jar the ball loose. The mad dash ended with Malik Jackson pouncing on the ball in the end zone to give Denver an early 10-0 lead with 6:34 left in the first quarter.
Miller was also the one who eventually sealed the game, on his second strip sack of the day, with 4:04 remaining in the fourth. But the Broncos’ defensive dominance went far beyond how many times Newton hit the turf. Jackson and Derek Wolfe consistently got the better of Carolina’s interior offensive linemen, and a running attack that averaged 142.6 yards per game in the regular season—the second best mark in the league—could never get going.
“If I could cut this award up and give it to DeMarcus, Wolfe, all those other guys, that’s what I would do,” Miller said. “I’ll take the ring.”
Newton’s 45 yards made him Carolina’s leading rusher by a comfortable margin, and most of that production came on scrambles born of excellent Broncos coverage. A gimpy Jonathan Stewart, who missed stretches of the game with a foot injury suffered early on, finished with just 29 yards on his 12 carries.
Without the ability to lean on the running game, Newton was forced to drop back 47 times, his second highest total of the season, despite the game being close almost throughout. Carolina spent the entire season surrounding Newton with extra bodies in pass protection, allowing his arm strength and accuracy to trump a lack of receiving outlets on any given play. Against Denver’s secondary, that was no longer an option. Ginn, Philly Brown and even Greg Olsen struggled to get much separation as they navigated the No Fly Zone, and even when Newton had extended time, he was often left bouncing on the balls of his feet as he chose between a collection of unappealing throws.
“We knew [Newton] wasn’t going to be comfortable,” said cornerback Chris Harris. “We were going to load the box, play man to man outside, and can your receivers beat us? We felt like we had an advantage there.”
Outside of a leaping grab by Devin Funchess late in the first half and a diving catch by Philly Brown early in the third quarter, the Panthers did little to help Newton on any sort of contested throw. Jerricho Cotchery let two passes slip through his hands, including a wheel route up the right sideline that was tightly covered by—of all people—Von Miller, and Newton’s lone interception careened off Ginn’s hands and into the arms of T.J. Ward.
It was the second time a turnover in Denver territory sabotaged a promising drive for Carolina. After a Newton scramble and a personal foul on Malik Jackson took the Panthers to midfield, Darian Stewart ended an 11-yard Mike Tolbert run by putting his helmet directly on the ball and knocking it from Tolbert’s hands. The play ended with Danny Trevathan pulling the ball from the pile—his first of two crucial fumble recoveries. On a day when scoring opportunities were scarce, another had slipped from the Panthers’ hands.
For its part, Carolina’s defense made enough plays throughout to keep the game close. Reserve defensive end Kony Ealy played the role of unlikely Super Bowl hero with the best game of his young career. The 2014 second-round pick finished with three sacks—sixty percent of his entire season-long output—along with a forced fumble and a one-handed interception of Peyton Manning after stealthily dropping into coverage. Fellow backup defensive end Mario Addison also saved the Panthers four points when he tracked down Denver’s Jordan Norwood on a long punt return in the second quarter. The return was the first of two special teams blunders that ultimately cost the Panthers. Graham Gano pushed a 44-yard field goal, hitting the right upright, to start the third quarter, keeping the Denver lead firmly at 13-7 with 10:48 left.
Manning and the Broncos’ offense never found many big plays—outside of a 34-yard run from C.J. Anderson early in the second quarter—but aside from the interception to Ealy, he managed to avoid disaster. Playing with his defense, that was enough.
Over the course of the week, the status of Newton and Miller as the first two picks of the 2011 draft made for an easy comparison, and after Sunday night the latter solidified his place alongside Newton as one of the game’s premier talents. Miller is arguably the league’s most dangerous edge rusher, but his performance over the course of these playoffs was proof that he has the ability to control games as much as any defensive player in football. The contact extension Miller fetches this offseason should rival any defensive players’ deal in football.
“I thought he was great in the regular season, but in the playoffs, he was a one-man wrecking crew,” said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
As Miller cemented his status as one of the league’s best players, the rest of his defense undoubtedly earned their status as an all-time great unit. Not since Richard Dent in Super Bowl XX has a pass rusher been named MVP, and like the Bears in 1985, the Ravens in 2000, the Buccaneers in 2002 and the Seahawks in 2013, the 2015 Broncos’ defense owned football’s biggest stage.
“Comparisons, they make me uncomfortable,” Miller said. “A lot of legendary guys have come before us, Hall of Fame guys that put their backs on the line and changed the game to what it is now. We played great, and I’m proud of every last one of my guys. We started the season like that, and it feels good when you set a goal and you’re able to finish it.”
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