The Denver Broncos’ defense dominated the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl. Before the big game, the Panthers had lost just one game all season. In that game, week 16 against the Atlanta Falcons, they rushed the ball 20 times. It was their lowest total of the season by nine attempts (as a team they had 27 rushing attempts in Super Bowl 50). Only five other teams even averaged 29 attempts/game last year, but Carolina hit that mark in all but one game. The Panthers also have a poor group of WRs that struggle to create separation on their own accord. A successful run game with Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart forced the defense to move extra guys down into the box opens up the passing game. It’s cliche, but it’s also how the Panthers operated this season.
Therefore, the path to victory was pretty clear for the Broncos. If their run defense was able to shut down the Panthers’ run game, they would probably be able to shut down the Panthers’ offense. The problem with that was just how adept the Panthers were at running the football. Cam Newton adds an entirely new dimension, because he forces you to account for him not only on option plays, but on designed power runs. Combine that with the option game Carolina has and Newton, Jonathan Stewart (or Fozzy Whittaker, who spells Stewart), and Mike Tolbert give the Panthers three legitimate running threats from the backfield. Football is a game of numbers. Normally, on run plays, the defense has to account for 10 players because the QB is not a run threat. Cam changes those numbers by being a legitimate threat to run the ball. It forces multiple defenders to win one-on-one battles on the defensive side of the ball.
For how good the Panthers were running the ball against the rest of the NFL this year, they hardly had any success against the Broncos. In 26 designed runs (Cam had one scramble), the Panthers gained 3 or fewer yards 17 times. One of those plays was the Panthers’ lone TD on the day, and one put them in a 3rd and 1 situation, but that leaves 15 runs that were totally unsuccessful. That also meant that the Broncos defense consistently forced 3rd and long situations. The Panthers were forced to pass, and were ineffective when trying to do so. Because of this, they went just 3-for-15 on third down in the game, passing on 14 of those 15 attempts.
So, how did the Broncos shut down Carolina’s prolific run game? By maintaining gap integrity and their interior defensive players winning one-on-one blocks. Diving into the tape shows this:
1-10-CAR 19 (Q1, 10:36) (Shotgun) 28-J.Stewart right end to CAR 21 for 2 yards (59-D.Trevathan).
The Panthers start off the game with heavy personnel. They have three TEs (including a 6th offensive lineman) and just one WR, who is off the screen. This forces 9 in the box from the Broncos. The Panthers are running a trap play, which is a counter with a guard pulling, and they also pull TE Ed Dickson across the formation to be the lead blocker. The read Stewart has to make on this play is on RT Mike Remmers, #74. He’s blocking #95 Derek Wolfe. Wolfe not only holds his ground against Remmers, but succeeds in knocking him back a bit as well. Wolfe is positioned slightly to the inside of Remmers, and, when Stewart makes his decision, LB Danny Trevathan is inside the RT as well. This forces Stewart to bounce it to the outside even though Ed Dickson is pulling through that hole. Trevathan does a great job of reading Stewart, then following him to the outside and using Wolfe’s body as a shield against Dickson. TJ Ward, who was functionally playing Will LB on this play, should also be commended for defeating Greg Olsen‘s block and being there to help Trevathan bring Stewart to the ground.
2-10-CAR 15 (Q1, 7:16) (Shotgun) 28-J.Stewart up the middle to CAR 15 for no gain (95-D.Wolfe). CAR-28-J.Stewart was injured during the play.
The setup here is different. The Panthers’ use Corey Brown in a fly sweep motion, and also give a read option look off of that. the goal here is to get the Broncos edge defender on that side, Von Miller, to freeze. It works. Miller is taken out of the play, and this puts the defense in a bad spot. The Panthers have one-on-one blocking matchups up front. The blocking on the play is inside zone. Initially, the blocking looks successful. Both Mike Remmers and RG Trai Turner do a very good job of giving a hand to assist with the down linemen and moving on to the second level. The problem is with the players they leave at that level. Derek Wolfe successfully gets off of Greg Olsen’s block, and makes the tackle for no gain. It’s a great play by him. Throughout the game, the Broncos defense had a common thread of being able to get multiple defenders to win their blocks, and that also happens here. Even if Wolfe hadn’t won so thoroughly against Olsen, this play was in trouble because Vance Walker dominated C Ryan Kalil, dragging him toward the ball carrier. What looked like an open hole when Turner and Remmers move to the second level collapsed quickly, and Stewart had nowhere to go.
1-10-CAR 21 (Q1, 6:21) (Shotgun) 43-F.Whittaker left end pushed ob at CAR 36 for 15 yards (43-T.Ward).
Despite their frequent failures, the Panthers did have a level of success against the Broncos, with 6 rushing plays of 10 or more yards. That speak less to the quality of the Broncos’ defense and more to the quality of the Panthers’ offense, because they just have too many weapons in the backfield to be stopped for 60 minutes straight. This is a triple option play from the Panthers. Newton has the ability to hand the ball off to Tolbert, keep it himself, or toss to Whittaker. Both #48 Shaq Barrett and #26 Darrian Stewart bite a little on the dive, and it forces them closer to the middle. It also means neither will have the speed to catch Whittaker on the edge. Newton takes a couple of steps to draw the defenders closer to him, then pitches to Whittaker, who has a lot of green in front of him and picks up a big chunk. Another interesting wrinkle on the play is that the Panthers are using a “tackle over” formation, as they put Michael Oher on the right side of the formation. This forced the Broncos to have their defensive line shift to the right.
1-10-CAR 36 (Q1, 5:56) (Shotgun) 35-M.Tolbert left guard to CAR 38 for 2 yards (56-S.Ray). FUMBLES (56-S.Ray), and recovers at CAR 38. 35-M.Tolbert to CAR 38 for no gain (56-S.Ray).
The Panthers ran the very next play out of a similar formation, except they’re not in tackle-over. This allowed the Broncos to move back to their base defense. It also put Darian Stewart back as a deep safety, instead of having him patrol near the box. If you watch Stewart closely, you can see he clearly has the pitch in mind as he follows Whittaker just as they both go off the screen. Unlike last time, Cam hands it off on the dive here. This is probably the correct decision. Initially, Shane Ray stays put to protect against the potential of Cam running. However, a failure along the offensive line kills this play. Ryan Kalil is initially double teaming Sylvester Williams with Trai Turner, but it he gets too invested in his block. He should move on to the second level of the defense to block #54 Brandon Marshall. Instead, Marshall attacks and gets past Kalil, forcing Tolbert to redirect his run. LG Andrew Norwell actually had to end up abandoning his double team on Malik Jackson in order to go after Marshall. This meant Tolbets’ cut was right into the waiting arms of Jackson and Ray. Ray ripped the ball out, and although Tolbert was able to get it back, this play was a win for the Broncos’ defense.
1-10-CAR 45 (Q1, 4:38) 43-F.Whittaker up the middle to CAR 46 for 1 yard (97-M.Jackson).
The Panthers fail on this play because of Michael Oher. He and Norwell are the blockers at the point of attack, and their job is to double team Jackson, while eventually one of them should move on to the second level. Michael Oher has a couple of issues on this play that lead to Jackson being free. First, he losing his footing off the snap. He’s trying to drive with his outside foot, but it slips out from under him. This makes him slow to reach Jackson. In fact, by the time he’s contacted the defender Norwell is already moving on to the second level. Oher then tries to move to the second level as well, which leaves Jackson free to make the tackle. From the perspective of the Broncos’ defense, Malik should definitely be commended on this play. You’ll note that he drops to one knee and twists his body at the snap. The Broncos play a one gap, penetrating defense, so his intent is to get in the gap between Oher and Norwell. Turning like this minimizes the contact area the offensive players can have, and facilitates his ability to move past them. In a traditional 3-4, you’d see a defensive lineman try to dig in, stand his ground, and occupy two blockers to allow the LBs a clear path to clean up. This is a different approach, but it’s just as effective.
1-10-CAR 27 (Q1, 1:15) (Shotgun) 28-J.Stewart left guard to CAR 27 for no gain (97-M.Jackson).
This is another read option play. From the broadcast angle, it’s clear that Cam in indecisive about whether or not to havnd the ball off. He holds the ball a bit too long, and Steewart doesn’t get a sure handle on it. So, this play was almost a disaster from the start, and it doesn’t get any better. Both Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe win their individual blocks. Jackson gets the tackle credit (and was the player to touch Stewart down), but Wolfe made the play. He totally ragdolls Remmers on the play, first forcing him too far inside and then basically just throwing him off him when Remmers tries to recover to the outside. Stewarts’ feet get tangled up with Remmers’, and the RB falls down. This play was a disaster from the start for the Panthers, and they can probably actually consider a gain of zero almost a win compared to the alternatives.