In Super Bowl 50, the Denver Broncos sent a resounding message to the football world that defense still wins championships in today's NFL. Given some time to evaluate the All-22 Coaches Film of the Broncos' masterful defensive performance, here are the steps Wade Phillips' troops took to shut down the Carolina Panthers' offense:
1) Wade Phillips crafted the perfect game plan to slow this offense.
Phillips is already lauded as one of the top defensive minds in football, but the wily coordinator's game planning throughout the playoffs will cement his legacy as a brilliant schemer. On the run to the Lombardi Trophy, the Broncos' top-ranked defense shut down three of the most prolific scoring offenses in the NFL (the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots andCarolina Panthersranked fourth, third and first in scoring, respectively) using a variety of clever tactics that disrupted the rhythm of their quarterbacks and suffocated their top playmakers on the perimeter.
Against Carolina, Phillips constructed a plan that neutralized the NFL MVP (Cam Newton) and throttled the NFL's second-ranked rushing attack. The veteran coach wisely plugged the holes on the interior to snuff out the zone-read running game and blanketed the Panthers' aerial attack with aggressive man-to-man and zone-coverage tactics.
From a schematic standpoint, Phillips stuck to his guns by using his 3-4 package with Sylvester Williams, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson controlling the middle, and Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware wreaking havoc off the edges on a variety of four- and five-man looks at the line of scrimmage. The five-man lines, in particular, were effective against the run because the tactic eliminated some of the double-team opportunities for the Panthers' frontline at the point of attack. Thus, the Broncos' defenders were simply asked to win their "one-on-ones" and occupy their assigned gaps along the line of scrimmage. With Phillips also deploying linebackers and safeties in man coverage, the Broncos' defense routinely had a "plus-one" (an extra defender in the box) to neutralize the zone-read and designed quarterback runs.
In the play below, the Panthers have a first-and-10 with 11:46 left in the third quarter. The Broncos are aligned in an "Okie" front, with Danny Trevathan positioned in the B-gap. Miller and Ware are "contain" players, with the three interior defenders instructed to occupy the A- and B-gaps (the nose tackle is responsible for the A-gap on both sides of the center; defensive ends are assigned to each B-gap). At the snap, the Panthers execute a QB power, with Cam Newton faking the ball to Jonathan Stewart on an outside zone. He will follow behind a pair of pullers (Trai Turner and Mike Remmers) to the offensive left. The Broncos stymie the play, with Miller and Ware eliminating the potential outside run, and Jackson and Trevathan plugging the gaps on the inside. Jackson fights through the down block by Michael Oher to step into the hole and stuff Newton for a tackle for loss (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Broncos' five-man frontline also eliminated the running lanes on some of the Panthers' complementary runs. In the play below, in the second quarter with 4:16 left on the clock, the Broncos are aligned in an "Okie" front against the Panthers' two-back formation. When Panthers receiver Jerricho Cotchery motions across the formation on "zoom" motion, Broncos safety Darian Stewart creeps to the line of scrimmage to anticipate the "toss crack" play to Fozzy Whitaker. When Newton pitches the ball to Whitaker, the Broncos' defense flows quickly to the ball, with Ware and Stewart acting as contain players. The Broncos' interior defenders race to the ball to plug the cutback lanes at the point of attack. Williams and Wolfe work off their blocks and corral Whitaker for a minimal gain on a deceptive play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
From a coverage standpoint, Phillips used a variety of man coverage tactics (Cover 1-Robber, Cover 1-Cut and Cover 2-Man) to blanket the passing game on early downs. He also mixed in some Cover 3 (three deep; four underneath) on long-yardage downs to force Newton to squeeze the ball into tight windows. By using man coverage, Phillips was able to eliminate some of the "RPOs" (run-pass option) passes that Panthers have used to torch opponents throughout the season. Man coverage assigns each defender to a receiver, which prevents Newton from exploiting a designated defender on a "read" (the defender flows to the ball, and Newton passes to a receiver on a seam or slant; the defender drops into coverage, and Newton hands the ball to the running back). Without the ability to play the "cat and mouse" game with multiple defenders on the perimeter, Newton was forced into playing as a classic dropback passer, which played into the strength of the Broncos' defense.
2) The Broncos' defensive line dominated the game.
For all of the credit that deservedly goes to Phillips for his brilliant game plan, the Broncos' defenders should also garner kudos for their exceptional individual and collective performances. The defensive line and outside linebackers, in particular, destroyed the Panthers' overmatched offensive line at the point of attack. While most of the attention will go to Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller for his spectacular play on the edges (six tackles, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles), Ware, Williams, Jackson and Wolfe were just as dominant throughout the game.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, it was clear the Broncos' interior players (Williams, Jackson and Wolfe) consistently won their one-on-one matchups at the line of scrimmage, which destroyed the timing of the Panthers' blocking schemes. With Miller and Ware creating chaos off the edges, the presence of big bodies in the middle disrupted Newton's rhythm and prevented him from fleeing the pocket to create positive plays for the offense. Most importantly, it allowed the Broncos to get a number of hits on the quarterback; the constant barrage of pressure left Newton battered and bruised by the end of the game.
The play below, which took place in the first quarter with 6:34 remaining, was the first of several game-changing plays Miller made off the edge. He is positioned in a wide alignment as part of a six-man blitz disguise against the Panthers' empty formation. Miller explodes off the ball, defeats Remmers with a swipe move and attacks Newton with a violent move. The ball pops out and Jackson falls on it in the end zone for a timely touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play below, from the end of the first half, Ware demonstrates his dominance by sacking Newton on a simple speed rush from the blind side. The Broncos are aligned in a four-man front, with Ware instructed to rush quickly off the edge. The veteran gets a great jump off the ball and racks up a sack despite facing a potential chip block from Whitaker in the backfield. Ware is simply too fast for Oher, and the athletic advantage results in a negative play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Broncos' ability to show heavy pressure while using only four or five rushers was a critical part of Phillips' plan to get after Newton. Denver repeatedly aligned in "all-out" blitz looks prior to the snap to create one-on-one matchups for their pass rushers at the point of attack.
In the play below, the Broncos are aligned in a "max" blitz front against the Panthers' empty formation with about a minute remaining in the third quarter. Miller is positioned in a "wide nine" alignment (outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) opposite Remmers. He sets the slow-footed pass protector up with a speed rush directed to the outside, then quickly engages the blocker and uses a spin move to win to the inside. Given Remmers' likely anxiety after giving up a strip-sack earlier in the game on a speed rush, Miller's spin move is the perfect counter tactic to the right tackle's aggressive pass set, leading to another sack of Newton (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play below, the Broncos are aligned in a six-man pressure look, with Miller positioned in a "wide nine" alignment, with 4:16 left in the fourth quarter. Brandon Marshall is stacked behind him and instructed to cover the running back, or "green dog" (blitz if the running back stays in the backfield to protect) to create a one-on-one matchup on the defensive left. With Remmers assigned to block Miller without help, Miller has a "two-way go" (he can rush to either side of the blocker), which is never a good thing for the offense. Miller uses a power-swipe move to work past Remmers and knock the ball out of Newton's hands for the game-clinching turnover (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
3) Cam Newton struggled against the "No Fly Zone."
The Broncos entered the game intent on making Newton win from the pocket against a vaunted secondary that featured dynamic defenders on the perimeter. The cornerback trio of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby is arguably one of the most versatile collections of cover corners in the game. Their ability to win their one-on-one matchups allowed Phillips to attack the Panthers with aggressive blitz and pressure tactics, with a mix of conservative zone coverage used to disrupt Newton's timing and rhythm. With safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart capable of playing as deep-middle players or near the box, the flexibility of the Broncos' secondary played a major role in the win.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film of Super Bowl 50, I was impressed with how seamlessly Denver's secondary shifted from man to zone coverage in key situations. The Broncos primarily played man coverage on early downs and third-and-medium (7 yards or fewer) situations to challenge the Panthers' receivers on the perimeter. The isolated coverage eliminated some of the layups Carolina has used to move the chains throughout the season.
In the play below, on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter, the Broncos are playing Cover 1 (man free) against the Panthers' trix formation. Roby, Harris and Talib are locked up in man coverage against the three receivers to the left. Roby is using "off" technique against Ted Ginn. He uses a slow pedal initially, but anticipates the dig route and jumps in front of Ginn to knock down the pass (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With the Broncos capable of playing man coverage utilizing a variety of techniques, Phillips could turn his pass rushers loose to attack Newton on blitzes or traditional rushers. However, I believe the Broncos' ability to play solid zone coverage, particularly Cover 3, in the back end was critical to their success. This was a tactic that the Atlanta Falcons (in their Week 16 win over Carolina) and Seattle Seahawks (in their win over Carolina in the 2014 Divisional Round) used to slow down the Panthers in the past. Thus, it was sensible for the Broncos to mix in some single-high zones to force Newton to fit the ball into small windows on throws between the numbers.
In the play below, on third-and-12 in the second quarter, the Broncos used a simple Cover 3 zone to prevent the Panthers from converting a first down. Stewart walks into the hook zone from his deep safety alignment to cover the intermediate area between the hashes. The rest of the Broncos' underneath defenders drop into their zones (number, hash and numbers) across the field. With the Broncos' defenders reading Newton's eyes, Stewart is able to jump tight end Greg Olsen's route and register a critical breakup on the play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With the Broncos' ability to generate pressure with four rushers while playing man or zone coverage behind it, Newton found the "No Fly Zone" impenetrable for most of the game.