Meaningful football is finally back! Our defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos will begin their title defense against the 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers who they defeated in Super Bowl 50.
24 hours.#BeatThePanthers pic.twitter.com/A8iQK9JQn4— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) September 8, 2016
The Broncos are out to prove that 2015 was no fluke and that they can repeat in 2016, and the Carolina Panthers have revenge on their minds. It's going to be a tough game for both teams. With all that said, I give you the five things to watch during tonight's season opening game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers.
1. Trevor Siemian vs. the Panthers front seven
Second-year quarterback Trevor Siemian is making his first career start tonight against Luke Kuechly and the Carolina Panthers defense. It's won't be an easy matchup for Siemian and the Broncos offense, but despite my feelings on Siemian, I really hope he turns me into a believer
The spotlight will be on Trevor Siemian come Thurs.— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) September 7, 2016
Is he ready for the challenge? https://t.co/eIN9IbEQik pic.twitter.com/o7DLYzX34W
Siemian singled out the Carolina Panthers front seven and stud inside linebacker Luke Kuechly when asked what makes their defense do difficult to prepare for and produce against.
"I think personnel. They’re really good up front in their front seven. It starts with Luke Kuechly. He runs the show and he’s a heck of a player. On the defensive line they have good players, good effort, a good rush and they’re athletic on the back end. It’s a good scheme with good players. They’re a heck of a defense."
How well the Carolina Panthers front seven pressures, confuses, and hits/sacks or intercepts Siemian will likely be a big determining factor into who comes away with the victory in this game.
Luke Kuechly: Panthers must make Trevor Siemian 'as uncomfortable as we can' https://t.co/mi0EVIH36l— David Newton (@DNewtonespn) September 6, 2016
The Panthers have the front seven to make Siemian very uncomfortable. If Kawaan Short and/or Star Lotuleli provide interior pressure, it could be a long night for Siemian. Kony Ealy had a ton of success in the Super Bowl and figures to give the Broncos tackles fits again.
if the pressure gets to the inexperienced Siemian, it could be a long night for him. If not? the Broncos passing game could have some success against the Panthers secondary that's starting two rookie corners.
2. Broncos need to get the running game going
One thing the Broncos offense is going to do a lot of this year is run the ball. Running backs C.J. Anderson and rookie Devontae Booker are going to get their share of attempts this year and the success of the offense depends on how well they do this year.
"We're a lot different, [the @Panthers] are a lot different ... " - @cjandersonb22— Broncos TV (@BroncosTV) September 4, 2016
" https://t.co/w7z2y9YkqQ pic.twitter.com/cG06LD6N1l
While all eyes will be on Trevor Siemian, the success of the Broncos run game is what will be key in this game.
If the Broncos get their running game going early on it will open up the passing game for Trevor Siemian. The play action bootleg is a staple in the Kubiak offense and is most effective when the run game is working. If the running game struggles like it did against the Los Angeles Rams in the preseason, it would put even more pressure on the shoulders of the inexperienced Siemian.
Anderson stressed the importance of running the ball against the Panthers.
"I don’t know if it’s just to take pressure off of Trevor. I think we want to run the ball because that’s what we want to do. It’s going to be tough. This is a good defense, really good, we know that. We know what players they have over there, but we also know what we have to. Of course we’re going to run the ball, stay on track and keep things simple for us."
Again, the Panthers front seven will be an issue for the Broncos offense. Yes, their secondary is full of youth and inexperience and is likely beatable, but first, the Broncos need to have success against the Panthers front seven. Protect Trevor Siemian and open up running lanes for C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker. If not, it could be a long night.
3. Stopping the Carolina Panthers run game
Many would assume stopping Cam Newton in the passing game would be the top priority for the Denver Broncos defense, but that would be incorrect. The Broncos must stop Cam Newton and the Panthers running backs in the running game if they want to win tonight's week one game.
"We want to set the tone with the run game"— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) September 7, 2016
| https://t.co/pTHs7alUf5 pic.twitter.com/0lBDLbqx0J
No one ran the ball more than the Panthers last year, no one had more success in the run game last year than the Panthers, and the Panthers run game was even considered "unstoppable" by many leading up to the Super Bowl.
Well, the Broncos proved that their run game wasn't unstoppable and stuffed Jonathan Stewart, Cam Newton, and Mike Tolbert during the game. The lack of a run game allowed the Broncos front seven and pass rushers pin their ears back and get after quarterback Cam Newton.
Now. the Broncos will need to do this again to have success tonight. Broncos Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips said that keeping Cam in the pocket and limiting him in the run game will be key for the Broncos defense.
"Of course he’s not going to run the ball in preseason, they’re not going to run him in preseason, but I believe last year he ran the ball 10 times in the first game they played last year. You have to be ready that he is going to run the ball, not just scramble, but running plays. That’s where he can hurt you. They’ve had a top rushing offense the whole season last year, part of it is because the quarterback makes yardage, too. I think he made more yardage than any of the running backs in the Super Bowl last year. He’s a threat to run the ball, call plays or scrambling plays."
The Broncos have the players to stuff the run game. Defensive end Derek Wolfe is one of the better run defenders in the game, the Broncos edge rushers do a good job to set the edge, and inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis fill their gaps. So there shouldn't be many running lanes for the Panthers running backs. The key will be keeping Cam in the pocket or contained.
It would have been nice to have defensive end Vance Walker for this game. He was a big run stuffing defensive end for the Broncos 3-4 defense but is out for the season with an ACL injury. In his place is veteran Jared Crick who struggled last season for the Texans but is reuniting with Bill Kollar and Wade Phillips. So hopefully he can be a solid run defender for the Broncos tonight and not a weakness.
4. Broncos must pressure, hit, and sack Cam Newton...again
If you watched the Super Bowl(I know we all did) or the Broncos playoff games(again, I know we all did) you watched the Broncos defense pressure, hit and sack Cam Newton, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger a ton during each game.
Von Miller with the SACK of Cam Newton and the fumble, recovered for the Super Bowl TD! Follow for more plays! pic.twitter.com/rzGuUmmSUi— Best NFL Plays ™ (@BestNFL_Plays) September 8, 2016
Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Derek Wolfe, and the rest of the Broncos defense needs to get after the reigning MVP tonight. Make him uncomfortable, rush him, and force him into mistakes. This what they did in Super Bowl 50 and must do again tonight.
The beating Cam took bothered him during the game and his body language showed how much it bothered him. If the Broncos can do this again they should be able to frustrate him and force him into more mistakes.
If not, well it could get ugly for the Broncos. Keep in mind, the Panther receivers did get open some during the Super Bowl. If it wasn't for the Broncos pass rusher consistently getting after Cam, he may have been able to hit these guys. So this is why pressuring Cam again is very important.
5. Covering the massive Kelvin Benjamin
One player who the Carolina Panthers did not have during the Super Bowl(or at all in 2015) was their number one receiver. Kelvin Benjamin.
Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin on track for 35 snaps, maybe more, vs. Broncos. @jjones9 story: https://t.co/9bkSDspG7N pic.twitter.com/oSHhK0627G— Mike Persinger (@mikepersinger) September 6, 2016
Benjamin is a 6'5", 245lb receiver who runs good routes and has speed. His size/speed makes him a matchup nightmare for even the best secondaries in the NFL. During his rookie year in 2014, Benjamin totaled 73 receptions for 1,008 yards, and 9 touchdowns. So he is a handful for sure.
Denver Broncos Head Coach called Benjamin a "new challenge" for the team to deal with.
"They got so many weapons, the tight end Greg Olsen, and those receivers. Kelvin’s the guy that if you’re playing a lot of man and there’s jump balls and those types of things. He’s a hard man to deal with. That’s a new challenge for us. He wasn’t there in the Super Bowl so it adds another weapon to already a pretty loaded group."
What may help the Broncos is that Kelvin Benjamin's conditioning isn't quite up to snuff and will be on a snap count during Thursday Night's game. He will likely be eased back and Panthers Head Coach Ron Riveria said he'll play around 35 snaps tonight.
Conditioning, not 100%, playing in the Mile High Air for the first time, and going against the No Fly Zone? Might not be a great return performance for the massive Benjamin.