The Carolina Panthers roll into Super Bowl 50 as the hottest team in the NFL, yet they face a Denver Broncos squad that poses a tremendous challenge, with its stifling defense and savvy quarterback. Given some time to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film, I've come up with a five-part plan for these Panthers to knock off the AFC champs.
1) Get off to a fast start.
Despite the Panthers' reputation as a defensive juggernaut, Carolina landed in Super Bowl 50 on the strength of a high-powered offense that lights up scoreboards like a pinball machine. The Panthers averaged a league-high 31.2 points during the regular season, utilizing a diversified offensive approach that seamlessly blends traditional run/pass concepts with zone-read packages and an explosive quarterback running game. Under offensive coordinator Mike Shula's guidance, the Panthers have scored 30-plus points in eight of their last nine games (including the playoffs), averaging 36.1 points and 385.3 total yards during that span.
While those numbers are certainly noteworthy, it is the creative scheming from Shula that stands out when I study the All-22 Coaches Film. The longtime offensive assistant has befuddled defenses with his opening scripts to help the Panthers outscore opponents 266-121 in the first halves of games during the regular season. The fast starts have continued in the playoffs, with the Panthersoutscoring Seattleand Arizona by a combined first-half margin of 55-7. Most impressively, the Panthers have scored seven touchdowns and two field goals in 13 first-half possessions; that kind of pace puts the opposing offense in a hole from the opening whistle.
Given the Broncos' offensive woes this season, Shula would be wise to keep his foot on the gas from the first snap. From using a variety of run-heavy personnel groupings like "12" (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs) and "22" (2 RBs, 2 TEs and 1WR) to mixing in a gadget play within the "First 15" (opening script) to catch the defense by surprise, the crafty play caller should come out on the attack to put the Broncos' star-studded defense on its heels.
Against Arizona in the NFC Championship Game, the Panthers executed a reverse from a run-heavy set with an unbalanced line to catch the Cardinals off guard, as you can see in the video below. The extra offensive linemen to the right signal a possible power run to the right by alignment. However, quarterback Cam Newton executes a zone-read fake, heads to the right and flips the ball to receiver Ted Ginn on the end-around. The speedster turns the corner and makes a nifty move to score a 22-yard touchdown on a perfectly blocked gadget play:
2) Lean on the read-option and power-read running game.
The Panthers bludgeon opponents with a hard-hitting running game that blends misdirection and deception with downhill tactics. The combination of power, counter and zone runs with an occasional quarterback keeper or end-around forces defenders to read and react instead of flowing freely to the ball. Given the challenge of blocking DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller on the edges, the use of various read concepts will allow Newton to decide whether to give or keep the ball based off the reaction of the ultra-athletic defenders.
The All-22 Coaches Film makes it clear the Panthers frequently use read-option concepts to create big plays on the ground. Against Arizona, the Panthers executed an inside zone with fly motion to generate an "explosive" run, as you can see in the play below. Receiver Corey Brown will motion across the formation and fake taking a handoff to the left. Running back Jonathan Stewart, lined up on Newton's left, is tasked with executing an inside zone to the right. Newton takes the snap and puts the ball into Stewart's belly when Markus Golden overreacts to Brown. With Newton a threat to keep it and run, the Cardinals race to the edge to stop the quarterback sweep, leaving a huge void for Stewart. The big-bodied runner eventually picks up 23 yards on a creative running play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In addition to using simple read-option concepts, the Panthers will run power plays with reads attached to the play. Against Atlanta in Week 14, they ran a counter play, with Newton bluffing a read fake, as you can see below. Prior to the snap, tight end Greg Olsen motions into the backfield assuming an H-back position. Tackle Mike Remmers pulls to the left to take out unblocked Falcons DE Tyson Jackson at the point of attack. Newton sticks the ball in Stewart's belly and runs out the fake, leading several Falcons to chase him to the perimeter. With the middle open, Stewart bursts through the hole for a 44-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Against Philadelphia in Week 7, the Panthers are aligned in a trey formation, as you can see below. Prior to the snap, receiver Jerricho Cotchery executes yo-yo motion before returning to the slot. Guard Trai Turner and Olsen pull to the left as part of a power-read blocking scheme. Newton sticks the ball into Stewart's belly and runs to the right after the handoff. With Newton prone to running quarterback sweeps, the Eagles race to the perimeter, leaving a void in the middle of the line. Stewart follows his blocks and rumbles for a 36-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
3) Unleash Cam Newton in the red zone.
Whenever a quarterback accounts for 45 total touchdowns (35 passing, 10 rushing) in a single regular season, he becomes the focal point of the offensive plan, particularly down in the red zone, where points are at a premium. When the primary playmaker is a 6-foot-5, 245-pound dual-threat scorer with a rare combination of size, strength, athleticism and arm talent, the play caller should craft a plan that maximizes his scoring potential on every play.
In Carolina, the Panthers have become one of the NFL's most efficient red-zone offenses due to Newton's emergence as the Ultimate Scoring Machine in his fifth pro season. The MVP candidate has always terrorized opponents as a runner near the goal line, but his rapid improvement as a pocket passer has made him nearly impossible to defend. Newton is a fastball pitcher capable of fitting the ball into tight windows on laser-like tosses to the back of the end zone.
Although arm strength is vastly overrated in the evaluation process, Newton's exceptional zip and velocity allow him to squeeze the ball into small cracks between multiple defenders. With Newton also displaying spot-on ball placement and accuracy, the Panthers' franchise player has quietly become one of the best red-zone passers in the NFL. Since 2014, Newton has compiled a 105.6 passer rating and posted a 39:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the red zone. Most impressively, he has thrown 26 red-zone touchdown passes in 2015 without recording a single pick.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, it's clear Newton's ability to drill seams and slant routes has been a huge part of the Panthers' red-zone offense. He has a tremendous feel for the timing of the play, and his ball placement has been superb when defenders are draped on his receivers' backs. On the 5-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess in the video below, from the NFC Championship Game, Newton's pinpoint accuracy and ball placement make the difference. Notice how he delivers the ball low and away from the defender. Quarterbacks are taught to throw the ball down and away to reduce the chances of a tip or deflection that could lead to an interception in the red zone. Newton has mastered the concept, and it has helped him avoid costly turnovers near the goal line:
Despite Newton's success as a passer, he is the most dangerous red-zone weapon in the NFL due to his exceptional running skills. He shines executing the quarterback run game, particularly the QB sweep and power inside the 10-yard line. Although these plays are routinely executed by dual-threat quarterbacks at the collegiate level, it is rare for an NFL quarterback to attack the middle or the edges on power-based runs. Newton, however, thrives on these plays, due to his extraordinary physical prowess.
Defenses play 11-on-10 when the quarterback isn't involved in the ground game as a runner or blocker -- but Newton makes it possible for the Panthers to even up the numbers. The clever utilization of Newton as a runner near the goal line has played a huge role in the team's impressive red-zone efficiency.
Against Arizona, the Panthers used Newton on a quarterback sweep to take advantage of the numbers count on the back side, as you can see below. The Panthers align in a trix formation, with Mike Tolbert instructed to motion to the three-receiver side prior to the snap. The Cardinals are in man coverage, and Tolbert's motion pulls the middle linebacker out of the box. Newton is instructed to run around the end behind a pair of pullers (Turner and center Ryan Kalil). The Panthers' star is able to fly into the end zone on a cleverly designed play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Given the Broncos' defensive problems in the red zone (Denver finished 2015 ranked 20th in red-zone efficiency, with 22 touchdowns allowed in 37 red-zone possessions) and their tendency to play man coverage, Newton's skills as a dynamic dual threat could prove highly problematic.
4) Force Peyton Manning to become a playmaker.
As crazy as it sounds to dare one of the most prolific passers in NFL history to win the game on the strength of his right arm, the Panthers must force the veteran to make plays from the pocket. Manning finished the regular season with the second-most interceptions in the league (17) despite playing in only 10 games, and his 67.9 passer rating was the lowest of any qualified starter in the NFL. Thus, the Panthers must get him out of his recently discovered comfort zone as a "game manager" and force him to make plays as a passer.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film and the heat map of Manning's throws from the pocket, it's clear that the 18th-year pro is a "dink and dunk" passer capable of only delivering accurate passes to the short and intermediate areas of the field. During the regular season, Manning targeted 62 percent of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, connecting on 69.9 percent of those throws with a 4:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In the playoffs, he has continued to primarily work the short area of the field (63 percent of his targets are within 10 yards of the line), and he has attempted more passes at intermediate range (35 percent of his targets in the playoffs are between 10 and 19 yards from the line in the postseason, up from 24 percent during the regular season) with moderate success (54 percent completion rate and a 2:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio).
Manning has been at his best throwing the quick game at short range and dig/comebacks at intermediate range. I noticed that Manning is most effective at intermediate range (10 to 19 yards) throwing to digs and comebacks to his right, which is Josh Norman's normal territory as the left cornerback in the Panthers' zone-based scheme. In addition, Manning also tosses a number of balls over the middle, which is where linebacker Luke Kuechly roams between the hashes. (Interesting note: Manning has directed 20 of his 24 pass attempts at intermediate range to the right or middle of the field during the playoffs.)
For most of the season, the Panthers have been able to feast on quarterbacks forced to throw against loaded zones in obvious passing situations. The Panthers run a zone-based cover scheme that allows defenders to keep their eyes on the ball, which leads to more interceptions off tips and overthrows. In addition, the Panthers' underneath defenders excel at reading and recognizing route concepts, which allows them to make breaks well before the ball is thrown in their area. This has not only led to more interceptions from the unit, but it has helped the Panthers record six pick-sixes this season (including in the playoffs) and lead the NFL in takeaways.
Kuechly's interception in the NFC title game is a perfect example of how the Panthers' zone scheme creates problems for quarterbacks forced into "pass-happy" mode, as you can see in the video below. The Panthers are nursing a big lead and sitting back in a soft two-deep zone, with Kuechly instructed to read the WR3 down the seam. He quickly retreats to his zone, reads the route and gets his eyes back to Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer prior to the throw. With great anticipation and instincts on display, Kuechly steals a pick and races to the end zone for a touchdown:
5) Keep C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman in check.
Given Manning's limitations as a passer, it is obvious the Broncos want to run the ball early and often. The team has discovered a winning offensive formula down the stretch, and running the ball 30-plus times has been a huge part of Denver's success. The Broncos are unbeaten when posting at least 32 rushing attempts or 130-plus rushing yards. Thus, the Panthers must focus heavily on stopping the Broncos' zone-based running game, with Anderson/Hillman positioned as the "dot" back.
Anderson, a third-year pro, has been the Broncos' most productive runner during the playoffs, exhibiting a rugged one-cut running style that allows him to attack downhill quickly against fast-flowing defenses. He routinely runs through contact in the hole, and his ability to fall forward keeps the Broncos ahead of the chains. To stop Anderson from churning out big yards, the Panthers need to eliminate the cutback lanes and force him to run toward the edges, where Thomas Davis and Kuechly can run him down.
Hillman poses a different set of problems, with his stop-start quickness and jitterbug running style. He has a knack for turning the corner on outside plays, yet also flashes the agility and vision to spot a crease on the inside. Although he lacks the size to grind it out between the tackles, he is a threat to take it the distance from anywhere on the field. Thus, Davis and Kuechly need to have their antennas up when he is in the game to anticipate perimeter runs.
In addition, the 'backers can tap Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei on the hip to encourage them to maintain their gap discipline at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos' offense will attempt to chop down defenders at the point of attack to leave creases and cutback lanes; how well the interior defenders hold up could determine whether Hillman and Anderson enjoy success or get rocked in the hole repeatedly by Kuechly and Davis.