Editor’s note: Throughout the 2015 NFL season, The MMQB is publishing an advanced analytics column by Neil Hornsby, the president of football operations at Pro Football Focus.
While Cam Newton is rightly the de facto MVP of the league, it’s still worth reiterating: As well as he has played, this has been far from a one-man show. His offensive line has been a major contributor.
I believe the most telling number going into Sunday is how Newton’s performance is affected by pressure. First, consider just how outstanding he is when his offensive line gives him a clean pocket:
Predicated on his ability to make big plays (his 32 TD passes when kept clean were the most in the league) his 112.6 passer rating is the league’s third best. However, when he’s under some form of pressure, things deteriorate quite markedly.
Now his TD to interception ratio drops to 1:1 and he becomes only the 19th best, by passer rating, which falls a whopping 41.5 points.
For those who think that’s because when he’s under pressure he resorts to his legs to win the game consider this: In the five games he was under pressure the most, he scrambled five times for 33 yards total when pressured—hardly the stuff of legend. His best ground work this year has been on designed runs, where he ran 86 times for 427 yards at 5.8 yards per attempt.
So, obviously, the better he’s protected, the better he plays and for the most part his line has done a superior job in that regard. However, when they have given up pressure things have become far trickier for their “Superman” signal caller. To underline that point, the game in which he was pressured the most (at Atlanta, Week 16) is the only game they lost and was the only performance from his last 10 that we graded as negative.
However, this weekend he won’t be facing the Falcons, now it’s by far the best defense in football and a group that have made life incredibly difficult for nearly every QB its gone up against.
Denver’s defense can pressure the QB from nearly every position and that is made clear by the fact that even the interior line gets significant push. Derek Wolfe has 40 total pressures and is 11th in pass rush productivity among 3-4 DEs, while his partner in crime, Malik Jackson, is even more accomplished, generating 60 pressures and ranking eighth.
The match-up on the interior though, while it favors Denver, is not a clear win for the Broncos. Jackson and Wolfe will be going up against Andrew Norwell, Ryan Kalil & Trai Turner. Although every one of those linemen is a better run blocker than pass protector, their skills in pass blocking range from excellent (Turner) to average (Kalil). It’s highly unlikely they will capitulate in the way that the New England Patriots line did in the AFC title game.
So what about the outside?
The story of how Michael Oher revived his career in Carolina is a compelling one. He’s hardly been the all-star some would have you believe—because his run-blocking has been as bad as any NFL tackle’s—but his pass protection ability has been sound throughout and improved as the year went on. If you think DeMarcus Ware has an advantage, consider this: Most of the pressure given up by Oher is on inside moves and bull-rushes; he sets out not to get beaten to the outside and for the most part that’s what he achieves. The way to beat him is by setting him up outside and then doing something different. Unfortunately that’s not Ware’s game—he’s still an outside speed and work-ethic rusher, and unless he does something different it’s possible Oher may extend his streak of not giving up a pressure (that started after the Falcons loss) to four games.
And that leads us neatly to the biggest mismatch of the whole game: How will right tackle Mike Remmers deal with the one of the best five edge rushers in football, Von Miller?
Remmers has had a good postseason to date, not giving up a single pressure, but most of that has been predicated on the Panthers’ ability to get out in front early and run the football. Against Seattle he was asked to run block almost twice as much as pass protect, and that makes a linemen’s job much, much easier. Over the season though, things have been different. He has struggled to a degree against every type of rush—inside (28% of pressure), outside (30% of pressure) and bull-rush (33% of pressure). Now he’s going against a player who brings all of those skills in abundance. Miller has a superb speed rush and that devastating dip round the corner, he also has the ability to “jag” inside and then burst, almost at right angles, into the back-field, and to add insult to injury he also utilizes the plain outright power to unsettle even the most robust of tackles on the bull-rush. There’s no doubt Carolina will need to help him in some way.
They don’t do a massive amount of chipping (21 times so far in 2015) so it’s more likely to be leaving Ed Dickson behind to lengthen the route to Newton, keeping Tolbert or Stewart behind or a combination of both. Max protection is fine but they don’t really have the receivers (Greg Olsen aside) to win consistently using three-man routes against Denver’s secondary.
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If Carolina can pass protect with five, and far more importantly not have Miller destroy everything they do, they have a quarterback who can make things happen. As the numbers show, if Newton’s under pressure he becomes just another player, the advantage swings to Denver.
That’s why I feel the eventual winner of this encounter is likely to be the same as the winner of Remmers vs. Miller.