Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In Super Bowl 48, the Broncos had a plan to avoid Richard Sherman. Will Peyton Manning pay the Panthers’ cornerback the same respect?

By Andy Benoit
February 01, 2016

Two years ago, Peyton Manning went into Super Bowl 48 with a specific plan to not throw at Richard Sherman when the Seahawks’ All-Pro corner was in off-coverage near the sideline. Challenging the ball-hawk wasn’t worth the risk.

Sherman was the best corner in football that season. This year, by consensus, the best corner has been the Panthers’ Josh Norman. Like Sherman, Norman is primarily an off-coverage defender who plays outside in a zone scheme. Norman isn’t quite the play-making threat that Sherman was in 2013, but as his four interceptions and two touchdowns this season attest, he’s plenty dangerous.

Falling so far behind the Seahawks in Super Bowl 48—they trailed 22-0 at halftime and 36-8 after three quarters—the Broncos had to abandon their game plan and operate in a state of desperation. They never got to truly see whether or not the deliberate avoidance of Sherman was wise.

Manning today plays in a less vertical passing game under head coach Gary Kubiak than he did two years ago under then-offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Avoiding Norman on the perimeter would not be outlandishly disruptive to Denver’s M.O., but avoiding any corner comes with the inherent cost of shrinking the field. And shrinking the field against a speedy zone defense like Carolina’s can be perilous.

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But that doesn’t mean the Broncos won’t do it. Playing opposite Norman is Robert McClain, a fifth-year veteran who was added to the roster in December after injuries to Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman thinned the cornerbacking corps. When inexperienced corners enter a lineup in midstream, defensive coordinators tend to have their corners play the same side snap after snap, in order to help that new corner get comfortable. The down side is that offenses are able to dictate matchups. Not surprisingly, Carolina’s opponents have deliberately thrown at McClain on the perimeter, with plus and minus results. If the Broncos want, they can get No. 1 receiver Demaryius Thomas against him simply by aligning Thomas outside to the left side of the offense.

Every once and a while, Norman and McClain will flip sides so that Norman can match against a certain receiver. This would be Carolina’s only recourse against Thomas, and it becomes null should Thomas align in the slot, where neither McClain nor Norman operate. (Those duties belong to Cortland Finnegan.) Because the Panthers are a nickel zone defense that plays five defensive backs and two linebackers—rather than six DBs and one linebacker like dime a defense would—the Broncos can use trips formations (three receivers aligned to the same side) to get Thomas matched against linebackers Luke Kuechly or Thomas Davis. Both are excellent cover linebackers, but not to the extent that they’d win repeated matchups against an upper echelon wide receiver.

This illustrates the value of having versatile man-to-man corners. Norman could maybe hold up in iso-man coverage, but he’s not asked to do so very often and probably hasn’t practiced it much. Denver’s corners, on the other hand, have flourished in this capacity. Aqib Talib is limited mostly to playing the perimeter, but Bradley Roby and especially Chris Harris can work inside or outside. It’s nearly impossible for offenses to dictate specific passing matchups against them.

The Panthers, however, are the only playoff team this season devoid of wideouts who are worth special defensive attention. It will be shocking if Denver’s corners don’t play the same side on every snap. The one Carolina pass-catcher who needs to be specifically accounted for, tight end Greg Olsen, is the one guy that none of Denver’s corners can defend fulltime. Harris and Roby are too small. Talib has the size but is nowhere near strong enough in run support; you can’t ask him to follow Olsen into the slot or especially all the way to a traditional line of scrimmage tight end spot because the Broncos will need linebackers and bigger safeties in this roles to defend Carolina’s high-volume power running game.

Both Super Bowl offenses this year have quarterbacks who can audible into more favorable matchups at the line of scrimmage. This is what Peyton Manning has built his career on, and it’s what propelled Cam Newton to likely MVP status. The Super Bowl has millions of viewers who don’t usually watch football. Those viewers tend to gripe about the play-to-play stoppages. But in this contest, it’s during those stoppages, in the presnap phase, where the aerial battles will be decided.

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