READY AND STEADY

The Broncos' defense was uniquely qualified to stifle the Panthers
February 15, 2016

When preparing for the Panthers' offense, a defense needs to be ready for two things. The Broncos and coordinator Wade Phillips aced both in their 24--10 victory in Super Bowl 50.

First—and this was no secret going into the game—the Broncos had to limit the Panthers' multiple-run game, which features everything from traditional two-back lead plays to the triple option and zone read. Denver, which was the only Carolina opponent this season that had two weeks to prepare for Cam & Co., put the extra prep time to good use. With outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware blowing up most edge runs with disciplined angles, and defensive linemen Malik Jackson, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe defeating one-on-one blocks on the interior, the Panthers couldn't sustain any ground game. Their running backs averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, and that lack of success early in the series created headaches later. The Panthers faced second-and-eight or longer on 23 of 26 second downs (88.4%), and 17 of those were 10 yards or longer. They faced third-and-eight or longer 81% of the time (13 of 16).

That puts a lot of pressure on a passing offense, and the Broncos had a subtle wrinkle to keep the heat on there as well. The Panthers reached the Super Bowl, in good measure, because their running backs and tight ends often help in pass protection to give Cam Newton time in the pocket. As a result, most teams have difficulty generating pressure on Newton, and Carolina's 33 sacks allowed was tied for 11th best in the NFL.

Phillips used a subtle old-school tactic to free up his rushers: the green dog or, as some teams call it, the hug blitz. When you play as much man coverage as Denver does, a linebacker and/or safety is assigned to cover a running back or tight end. Most teams have their coverage players lay off and assist elsewhere if their target stays in to block. But Phillips had his players, specifically linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall and safety T.J. Ward, play more aggressively and attack the line. Instead of being able to help block Miller or Ware, Carolina's backs and tight ends were often preoccupied with stopping green dog rushers.

The Broncos used the green dog blitz on 14 occasions against the Panthers, which helped create the illusion of more blitzes, including the two biggest plays of the game. When Trevathan saw Panthers tight end Ed Dickson stay in and block with 5:57 left in the third quarter, he flew into the line, forcing Newton to rush his pass high to Ted Ginn; the ball was picked off by T.J. Ward. And with 4:16 remaining in the game, both Ward and Marshall initially ran toward Dickson and fullback Mike Tolbert, respectively, keeping them from helping on the edge. Miller was free to enjoy his advantageous one-on-one matchup with right tackle Mike Remmers and knock the ball free from Newton for the second time in the game. Ward recovered at the Panthers' nine-yard line, and 56 seconds later C.J. Anderson scored the game-icing touchdown. Denver's readiness had paid off in spectacular fashion.

PHOTOSIMON BRUTY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (NEWTON HIT)CAM PAIN SEASON Phillips (below) and the Denver D contained Newton (left) like few teams had all season. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PHILLIPS)[See caption above]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)