Fanspeak’s Super Bowl 50 Preview

NFL Game Preview

The entire NFL season comes down to this: Carolina vs Denver for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

As everyone knows, the hyped Super Bowl storyline is Cam Newton vs Peyton Manning.

While this is a nice, media friendly storyline, it doesn’t cover what will actually occur during the game. The accurate storylines would be Newton vs the Broncos’ defense and Manning vs the Panthers’ defense.

Denver’s pass rush obliterated New England in the AFC Championship Game. Von Miller and company made a living in the Patriots’ backfield.

The game plan needs to be very this week though. Denver was able to rush Tom Brady knowing two things. First, they knew Brady wasn’t much of a threat to scramble. Second, they knew the Patriots weren’t going to be rushing the ball much.

These two factors allowed the Broncos’ pass rushers to pin their ears back and get after Brady. A common alignment from the Broncos’ front four saw both defensive tackles in the B gaps and both defensive ends well outside the shoulder of the offensive tackle.

This is a great alignment to rush the passer, as it basically guarantees one-on-one matchups on the outside, assuming the offense doesn’t keep anyone extra in to block. The weakness of the front is the run, but Denver knew the Patriots weren’t a threat to run.

Carolina presents a much different challenge.

The Panthers’ averaged the second most rush yards per game in the regular season (142.6), and Newton is a threat to scramble.

This means defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is going to have to use a different strategy to win the Super Bowl.

The biggest challenge that Newton’s rushing ability presents is that pass rushers need to maintain gap integrity and stay in their rush lanes. If this doesn’t happen, a huge hole can open in the line.

Newton is much more than a running quarterback though, so stopping him from running on pass plays won’t mean anything if the pass rush doesn’t get home.

On the flip side, Carolina’s defense is no joke either.

While Denver finished first in total defense and fourth in scoring defense, Carolina finished sixth in both categories.

Manning is obviously no longer the same quarterback from a few years ago, but he is still one of the smartest, if not the smartest, quarterback in the NFL.

To beat Manning, the Panthers’ defense is going to need to confuse him at the line of scrimmage. Show one look and run something completely different. One look you will see from Carolina a lot in the game involves sugaring the A gaps, but more on that later.

With all of Manning’s audibles, Carolina will have to decide whether to change as well. This job falls to middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is the best in football.

The cat and mouse game between the two will go on all night. All it takes is one mistake from either to change the outcome of the game.

Both offenses will have their hands full Sunday night. If you love to watch defense, this will be a great game for you.

Player to Watch (Carolina): TE Greg Olsen 
By far the No. 1 target in the passing game for Carolina, Olsen led the team in targets, receptions and receiving yards. He also finished fourth in the NFL in receptions for tight ends and second in receiving yards. Last week, Denver allowed Rob Gronkowski to catch eight passes for 144 yards and one touchdown on 15 targets. Gronkowski gained 44 yards and scored on the final Patriots drive. Despite these statistics, the Broncos didn’t do that bad covering him. The final drive was just vintage Gronkowski, beating perfect double teams. Olsen isn’t quite at Gronkowski’s level, but Olsen is in the second tier of tight ends. A big game for Olsen likely means victory for Carolina.

Player to Watch (Denver): OLB Von Miller
The MVP from the AFC Championship Game has to be Miller. He wrecked havoc on the Patriots all game long, finishing with five tackles, 2.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and one interception. While he only finished the regular season with 11 sacks (tied for eighth most in the NFL), he truly is one of the best pass rushers in the game. He is a complete player, and his contributions in the run game can’t be overlooked either. In the Super Bowl, Miller will spend most of his time against Mike Remmers, the Panthers’ right tackle. To say that Miller has the advantage here would be an understatement. Expect Carolina to leave a tight end or a running back in pass protection to Remmers’ side to help.

Matchup to Watch: Offensive line vs Defensive line 
Simply put, this game is going to be won in the trenches. The team that is able to impose their will upon the other will win. I give the advantage to both defensive lines.

Denver’s four-man front of DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson and Von Miller is lethal. Carolina’s offense line was one of the best in the NFL this season. People who love line play will want to tune in for this.

Kawann Short and the rest of the Panthers’ pass rush produced 44 sacks in the regular season and have added another eight in the postseason. Against Seattle, the defensive tackles constantly beat Seattle’s interior offensive line. Denver’s weakest unit is their offensive line.

Important Injury (Carolina): LB Thomas Davis
In the NFC Championship Game, Davis suffered a broken forearm. Soon after the game he underwent surgery and is expected to play in the game. He may not be quite as effective as normal, but considering he has recovered from three ACL tears, there wasn’t much doubt that he’d be ready to play.

Important Injury (Denver): S Darian Stewart
Against New England, Stewart suffered a minor MCL sprain. Just like fellow safety T.J. Ward (ankle), Stewart will start, but how much will the injury limit him? Both teams are relatively healthy for how late in the season it is.

Scheme to Watch (Carolina Offense): Zone Read Running Game
Carolina runs many different schemes in the ground game, but their rushing attack is built upon the zone read. This allows Newton’s rushing ability to come into play and forces defenses to guard another player. The Panthers didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher in the regular season, but anyone with more than one carry averaged over four yards per carry. For an excellent breakdown of the Panthers’ quarterback runs, read Matt Bowen’s article on ESPN (subscription required).

Scheme to Watch (Denver Offense): Outside Zone Runs
The bread and butter of Gary Kubiak’s offense is the outside zone (stretch) play. Kubiak’s offense isn’t a natural fit with Manning, but with Manning’s regression, he needs the run game a lot more than he used to. Zone blocking doesn’t require huge offensive linemen and places a priority on mobility. Running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman will carry the load in the Super Bowl. For an excellent breakdown of the outside zone run, read this article from James Light Football.

Scheme to Watch (Carolina Defense): Double A Gap Blitzes
As mentioned earlier, the Panthers love to utilize double A gap fronts. This look is usually deployed out of a nickel package and sees both linebackers lineup over the A gaps, with the defensive line widening out accordingly. From here, an array of four and five-man rushes can occur, confusing the offense. In addition, the offense needs to account for all six in pass protection. For an excellent breakdown of the Panthers’ double A gap scheme, read this article from James Light Football.

Scheme to Watch (Denver Defense): Bluffing Blitzes
We already discussed the Panthers attempting to confuse Manning at the line, but the same thing can be applied to Denver’s defense and Newton. A lot of the pressure created by the Broncos against New England came on four-man rushes. A well-designed four-man rush can be just as effective as sending extra defenders. For an excellent breakdown of this, read Matt Bowen’s article on ESPN (subscription required).

Prediction: Carolina 24 Denver 19
It has been clear for some time now that Carolina is the best team in the NFL. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will win, because once the players get on the field, anything can happen. In the end, I believe soon-to-be NFL MVP Cam Newton and the Panthers are too much for the Broncos to handle, and Carolina wins their first Super Bowl title.

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