When the Denver Broncos met the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 it marked the end of a remarkable run. After a wildly successful second career following an unceremonious release by the Colts, the win helped Peyton Manning walk away at the top of the game, capping off a Hall of Fame career with his second title. Unbeknown to anyone at the time, the contest now represents the high point of Cam Newton’s career and the closest Carolina’s come to a Super Bowl since Jake Delhomme dueled Tom Brady. Barring something nutty, either Carolina or Denver will end today with their fourth losing season since the two slugged it out in Santa Clara.
Here’s what I’m looking for.
1. Who plays where in the secondary?
2. How do the cornerbacks influence Fangio’s pressure scheme, if at all?
3. Who wins along the line of scrimmage?
4. What happens when Teddy has time to throw?
5. Will Brady burn the Broncos with play action?
Denver’s had a strong pass defense for the vast majority of the season with one premier corner. Losing A.J. Bouye to suspension after both Bryce Callahan and Essang Bassey landed on Injured Reserve with injuries could be the tipping point.
I expect De’Vante Bausby to join Michael Ojemudia as the starting boundary corners. Bassey’s absence led to Duke Dawson logging 20 defensive snaps against the Chiefs. Alijah Holder has seen snaps each of the last three weeks, but I expect the nickel duties to come down to Dawson and Will Parks.
The last time we saw the Broncos play without both A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan, Davontae Harris got roasted by Olamide Zaccheaus and Julio Jones gave Michael Ojemudia one of his three “welcome to the NFL” moments. Due to the insanity since it feels like years since the Falcons game, but the Broncos only cut Harris three weeks ago.
With both Curtis Samuel and Robby Anderson, Joe Brady is going to create issues for the new secondary. So far this season, the Panthers’ two most utilized personnel groupings are 11 and 12. They use three receivers 57% of the time and two tight ends 16%. Carolina’s been very pass happy out of 11, but have basically a 50-50 run/pass ration in 12. They’re far more likely to run the ball out of any other personnel grouping they’ve shown, but Brady has a potent play action game in each.
The Panthers offense features a heavy dose of high percentage completions to get their athletes in space. There’s a good chance the Broncos will face some snaps with Samuel in the backfield as a way to get him schemed touches with blockers setting up. Anderson is among the fastest receivers in the league. While Christian McCaffrey is doubtful, his status is huge because of how the trio of Anderson, Samuel, and McCaffrey could pose to the second level.
Teddy Bridgewater’s more of a point guard than a long bomber. There’s decent odds he puts the ball in harms way if the Broncos can make him uncomfortable. Taylor Moton has played quite well on the right side, but Bradley Chubb could find some favorable downs against Russell Okung. Look for Fangio to try and draw the protection away from Okung so Chubb has a two way go. Matt Paradis has played well this year in his return from last year’s injury, but the Broncos should be able to create issues with stunts and their firezone blitzes.
7. Can the Broncos the gameplan stay on track?
8. Will the interior hold up against big bad Derrick Brown?
9. Will the pass pro hold up?
10. Who wins their matchups in the passing game?
11. Is Drew Lock “the guy”?
Against the Chiefs, the Broncos did all they could to lean into the ground game and threat it presented to help Drew Lock and minimize his exposure to true dropback passing. 16 of his 20 attempts outside of the two minute offenses at the end of each half came with either a motion, shift, or play action fake. He completed 65% of his passes for 149 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick as the coaching staff leaned on the ground game and defense. They were four plays away from beating the defending Super Bowl champions.
Barring some real Fangio wizardry, the Broncos will need the offense to bring their A-game to beat the Panthers. Their newfound identity should work quite well against this Carolina defense. Zach Kerr has played quite well along Carolina’s interior, but will miss the game because of Covid-19. Derrick Brown and Shaq Thompson both look like they will play and both present issues. Brown is a world eater at 6’5 and 326 pounds with the kind of overwhelming power to wreck the interior line. With Graham Glasgow out for the game, today is going to be a test for Lloyd Cushenberry and Austin Schlottmann.
If Melvin Gordan and Phillip Lindsay can find their way out of the backfield, they could be in for a really big day. Carolina’s run defense has gotten better in recent weeks, but they lean heavily on Chinn and Thompson to clean up. If the Broncos can get Dalton Risner or another lead blocker out on the edge and outnumber them, it’s going to be a huge mismatch. There’s some reason to believe Fangio aims to test them.
“A lot of teams—or most teams—are playing five defensive backs on the field a good bit at a time. They found a niche for him to excel and he does a really good job for them. He’s listed as a linebacker sometimes but he’s a defensive back playing linebacker. He’s one of those hybrid guys that can do both. There’s not a lot of them that can do it effectively—both run and pass—but Chinn seems to be one of the better ones at it.”
Carolina’s shown a willingness to send extra bodies into the box as a way to control the line of scrimmage, even if it means conceding easy completions. Look for Phil Snow and Matt Rhule to do just that against a young offense that’s had a number of problems against the blitz this year. The Panthers want to play over the top and rally up, but if Drew Lock can hang in the pocket, there’s going to be opportunities for big plays.
The biggest hindrance to that’s likely to be Brian Burns, who has hints of young Von Miller in his game. A speed rusher with a nice swim and spin, he’s going to test both Demar Dotson and Garett Bolles. The infamous Bolles’ wraparound hold hasn’t reared it’s head much this year, but edges like Burns has given him fits in the past. Today’s a test for his progress.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Until Drew Lock proves that he can provide his teammates with NFL quality quarterback play for four full quarters, it will remain the biggest question hanging around the Broncos. They came within four plays of knocking off a defending Super Bowl champion with the best quarterback alive while trying to hide their quarterback: even banged up this coaching staff and roster is ready to battle with anyone. With Von Miller unlikely to return and cornerbacks dropping like flies, it only gets harder from here. Until Fangio proves his defense can survive with Michael Ojemudia, De’Vante Bausby on the boundary and either Duke Dawson, Will Parks, or Alijah Holder at nickel all game, every offense the rest of the way looks frightening.
Let’s hope they’re up to the challenge.