Two years after getting blown off the field in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Denver Broncos are back on the biggest stage in football. How can Peyton Manning and Co. change their fortunes this time around? After digging into the All-22 Coaches Film, I've come up with a five-part plan that'll allow these Broncos to lift the Lombardi Trophy.
1) Make Cam Newton win from the pocket.
It is uncommon for a 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback to serve as an offense's most explosive weapon as a dual-threat playmaker, but Newton is a unique player at the position with the potential to carve up defenses with his arm or legs. The fifth-year pro enters Super Bowl 50 with 50 total touchdowns (38 pass; 12 rush) on the season, including playoffs. He's the ultra-athletic point man of a diversified offense that blends traditional pro schemes with cutting-edge collegiate concepts (zone-reads, jet sweeps, run/pass options and quarterback runs) -- and all of that leaves opponents mystified by misdirection and deception in the backfield. With so much of the Panthers' offense built around the rare skills of their dynamic quarterback, the Broncos must build a game plan around neutralizing Cam's effectiveness as a mobile playmaker on the edges.
Studying the All-22 coaches' footage from each of the Panthers' regular-season games, I found that the most successful game plans against Newton have featured opponents forcing the MVP-to-be to play primarily from the pocket. Despite his significant improvement as a pocket passer, Cam remains a streaky playmaker when forced to rely strictly on his right arm to move the offense down the field. Newton completed just 59.8 percent of his passes during the regular season -- a very low figure for an elite passer in today's NFL. Granted, he compiled a 99.4 passer rating during the regular season and has improved his completion percentage to 70.0 during the playoffs, but Newton remains prone to inaccurate throws based on his tendency to throw off his back foot.
Looking at the NFC Championship Game demolition of the Arizona Cardinals, Newton's sloppy footwork led to an overthrow that resulted in an interception by Patrick Peterson. While the Pro Bowler has unbelievable arm talent, he isn't a textbook passer, and his inconsistencies occasionally show up when opponents force him to fit the ball into tight windows. During a four-game stretch in the middle of the season (Weeks 6 through 9), Newton tossed seven interceptions in 125 pass attempts, including a three-interception performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7. Given the fact that he has thrown interceptions in six of the 10 games where he's recorded at least 30 pass attempts this season, the Broncos are better off with Newton slinging the ball around the yard.
From a coverage standpoint, zone concepts traditionally challenge unrefined pocket passers due to the need to pass with anticipation and precision. Thus, the Broncos could mix in some of the zone looks they've used in recent games against the Steelers and Patriots to see if Newton can deliver strikes into small windows. The zone coverage will also allow the Broncos to keep their eyes on the big-bodied runner when he leaves the pocket.
In man coverage, the Broncos would be wise to employ the Cover 1-Robber and Cover 1-Cut coverages that have been a staple of their game plan throughout the season. While matching up with Carolina's speedy receivers could make the Broncos susceptible to quarterback runs, the free linebacker or safety could act as a spy on Newton to keep him from hurting them with his legs. The Broncos used these tactics (and "2-Man") to frustrate Aaron Rodgers in Week 8; the scheme could have the same effect on Newton. In addition, the utilization of man coverage (Cover 1) eliminates the "RPO" (run/pass option) passing game and neutralizes the zone-read option on the perimeter.
The Broncos could complement their coverage tactics with a "mush rush" at the line of scrimmage to clog the escape lanes for Newton. In that tactic, edge rushers use a contain rush (defenders are instructed to rush to the depth of the quarterback's drop but no further, to eliminate gaps between the offensive guard and tackle) on the edges, and interior defenders stalemate their blockers with their eyes on the quarterback, to prevent him from fleeing up the gut.
2) Keep the ball in front of the defense.
While most observers expected the Panthers to struggle without the services of last year's top receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers have gotten key contributions from a number of unheralded pass catchers on the perimeter. Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown, in particular, have stepped up and provided timely playmaking for Carolina as deep-ball threats with exceptional speed and quickness. Although each player struggles with drops, their collective ability to deliver explosive plays (receptions of 20-plus yards) makes the Panthers' vertical passing game quite dangerous.
Ginn, a ninth-year pro, averaged 16.8 yards per catch and hauled in 10 receiving touchdowns during the regular season. He excels at running the go and post routes, but he is also effective executing the deep slant (five-step slant) from either side. The Panthers take advantage of his remarkable speed and acceleration by placing him on the offensive left to allow him to work against right cornerbacks (generally regarded as the inferior cover corner in most NFL lineups).
In the highlight just below, taken from Carolina's 38-0 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 14, Ginn wins on a go route vs. bump-and-run coverage on the outside. He is positioned on the left against Robert Alford, the Falcons' RCB (and CB2, based on Desmond Trufant's status as a Pro Bowl player). Ginn fights through the initial jam and uses his speed to blow past Alford for a 74-yard touchdown:
Brown, who has improved his route-running in Year 2, boasts sneaky speed and acceleration, allowing him to carve out a role as a playmaker on the back side. He is capable of taking the top off the defense on vertical routes, but he also has the stop-start quickness and body control to win on double moves on the perimeter (slant-and-go, post-corner-post), as evidenced by this 20-yard touchdown against the New York Giants in Week 15:
With the Panthers frequently using play-action fakes and misdirection to freeze underneath defenders, Newton is allowed to target his deep-ball threats against one-on-one coverage down the field.
Thus, the Broncos must pay close attention to the Panthers' perimeter threats in coverage and limit their deep-ball chances by staying on top of receivers down the field. While that sounds simple on the surface, the Broncos' cornerbacks (Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby and Chris Harris Jr.) must avoid "undercutting" routes to prevent Ginn and Brown from winning over the top of the defense. In addition, the outside cover corners should consider playing with inside leverage when aligned in "off" coverage to eliminate the deep inside routes (deep slants and post routes) that are staples of the Panthers' game plan.
3) Convince Peyton Manning to play as a true game manager.
For all of Manning's success as one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, the Broncos made it to Super Bowl 50 by playing "complementary football." The offense took minimal risks with the ball, allowing the defense and special teams to set up scoring opportunities through superb execution. Although the approach runs counter to the way the Broncos had played in previous seasons with Manning under center, the philosophical shift was needed to give the team the best chance to win with an aging QB who has athletic/arm limitations.
To his credit, Manning seemingly has bought into the change, exhibiting better ball security in the playoffs (one giveaway) after a poor regular season (17 giveaways in just 10 games/nine starts). He has avoided forcing throws into tight windows, while routinely tossing the ball out of bounds instead of attempting a risky throw down the field. Remarkably, Manning has been able to connect with receivers on intermediate comebacks or dig routes despite defenders squatting on routes due to Manning's inability to push the ball down the field. While Manning has attempted to take enough vertical shots to exploit nosey defenders, he has wisely tossed the ball near the sidelines to avoid turnovers on errant passes.
In Super Bowl 50, Manning will see more zone coverage from the Panthers, which means he needs to do a great job of manipulating defenders with his eyes to keep aggressive playmakers (see: Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Josh Norman) from jumping routes in their respective areas. Norman, in particular, is a gambler with a penchant for stealing picks on short and intermediate routes. Thus, I would expect to see Denver use the quick game prominently to take advantage of any "off" coverage shown by Carolina.
While the Panthers routinely employ press and bail tactics to mask their coverage intentions, the Broncos can motion or shift to force the defense to back away from the line. Against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos used pre-snap motions and shifts to create quick-game opportunities for Manning.
In the play depicted just below, the Broncos originally align in a solo formation, with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders positioned on the left. Thomas motions across the formation prior to the snap, which forces Malcolm Butler to play Sanders from distance, due to his "nasty" split. On the snap, Sanders runs a quick out from his tight position. Manning retreats and fires off a three-step drop. This results in a 7-yard gain for the Broncos(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Manning's game-management skills also will be needed in the run game. He has a great feel for reading defensive fronts and frequently changes the direction of the run to hit the vulnerable bubble at the point of attack. This has played a key role in the Broncos' recent success running the ball; it will play a huge role in the Super Bowl 50 game plan against the Panthers' stellar defense. If Manning can consistently get the Broncos into the right call to enhance the chances of the running game, Denver can control the tempo of the game.
4) Use C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman early and often.
The Broncos' shift to a "complementary football" approach has keyed the team's renewed emphasis on the running game. During their last nine games, the Broncos have averaged 29.9 rushing attempts and 128.0 rushing yards (with eight touchdowns). While those numbers speak volumes about their commitment to the ground attack, the Broncos' unbeaten record when notching at least 30 rushing attempts and 130-plus rushing yards makes it a worthwhile endeavor in big games.
Studying the All-22 coaches' footage of the Broncos' recent games, Anderson and Hillman have played key roles as "ebb and flow" runners in the team's zone-based scheme. Gary Kubiak will give each back a handful of carries in the game's opening stages to determine which runner is most effective; then he will stick with the hot hand to anchor the running game in the second half.
Anderson, a third-year pro, has been the most productive runner for the Broncos as a feature back. A rugged "one-cut" runner with great vision and light feet, Anderson has a knack for spotting creases in the middle of the defense. He patiently attacks the front side, but flashes a burst through the hole when he sees the lane. Anderson's ability to consistently gain positive yards allows the Broncos to stay in manageable situations in later downs.
In the play depicted just below, taken from the AFC Divisional Round win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Broncos are aligned in an ace wing formation, with Anderson positioned as the "dot" back. He is running an inside zone to the left against the Steelers' eight-man front. The Broncos' interior blockers work down the field and cut down Pittsburgh's linebackers, leaving a huge crease for Anderson. With multiple defenders on the ground, Anderson skates to a 34-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Hillman, a fourth-year pro, is a slick runner adept at hitting the edges out of spread formations. He is an electric jitterbug with outstanding stop-start quickness and burst in the hole. Most importantly, Hillman displays the speed and acceleration to take it the distance when he gets a crease.
Looking at the All-22 coaches' tape from the Broncos' Week 12 win over the Patriots, Hillman's speed and quickness can give opponents problems when overreacting to plays. In the play diagrammed just below, the Broncos are aligned in a trips bunch formation, with the three receivers positioned on the right. Hillman takes the toss to that side and heads around the corner behind a convoy of blockers. With right tackle Michael Schofield pulling and tight end Vernon Davis executing a perfect kick-out block on the corner, Hillman cuts upfield and explodes for a 19-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Kubiak must commit to putting at least 30 rushing attempts on the ledger, regardless of production. The high number of rushes will allow the Broncos to control the game and create some one-on-one opportunities in the passing game along the boundary. With the ball-control approach also limiting Newton's touches, the Broncos must stay persistent on the ground.
5) Win the turnover battle.
Every coach preaches the importance of winning the turnover battle, but it is the biggest deciding factor in Super Bowls. Teams that win the turnover battle are 36-4 in the title game, which makes ball security and ball swiping critical in Super Bowl 50. The Broncos struggled with ball security throughout the regular season, finishing tied for second-to-last in giveaways, thanks to Manning's 17 interceptions and a few butter-fingered skill players (Anderson, Hillman, Thomas and Sanders combined for six lost fumbles).
From a defensive standpoint, the Broncos are unbeaten when winning the turnover battle (8-0), and they are 9-1 when the team gets two or more takeaways. Thus, the defense should attack the ball at every turn when tackling Panthers ball carriers in the open field. In addition, the Broncos' linebackers and defensive backs must be alert to snag potential interceptions on tips and overthrows. Although that kind of ball-hawking is stressed in every defensive drill, the Broncos must carry their practice habits onto the game field to knock off the NFC champions.