Denver Broncos Von Miller (58) strips the ball from Carolina Panthers Cam Newton (1) during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — All week long the question was, How would the Broncos react to Cam Newton. Sunday’s answer: they’d make Newton react to them.
“He really doesn’t scramble a whole lot,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said, holding the Lombardi Trophy. “He tries to throw from the pocket.”
The Broncos at times dedicated a spy on Newton in situations where he would be more inclined to scramble, but mostly they went into attack mode, blitzing Newton out of their man-to-man packages.
Phillips’ biggest decision heading into this game was what to do with his extra defenders. He knew that in man coverage he’d often have at least one, and maybe two. The Panthers, after all, like to keep a tight end and/or fullback in to help their athletically average offensive line in pass protection. So what do you do with the man-to-man defenders who are assigned to the tight end or fullback?
Phillips’ solution was to have them blitz. This tactic, known as green-dog blitzing, is an aggressive yet relatively safe way to combat a dual threat quarterback like Newton. As long as the green-dog blitzers are patient and sure that their man is not just chip-blocking but actually staying in all the way, and as long as they’re disciplined in their rush lanes so as not to disrupt the four rushing defensive lineman, it can be a lethal approach.
Linebacker Brandon Marshall, who has been a key green-dog blitzer for Denver all season, said this was the plan every time they saw extra men stay in to help pass protect. “In a lot of games we saw on film, Newton was just sitting back, patting the ball,” Marshall said. “We’d see two [free defenders] in the middle of the field just not doing anything.”
Another crucial benefit of green-dog blitzing is it prevents those extra blockers from doing what they’re employed specifically to do, which is help the offensive line. Tight end Ed Dickson can’t help heavy-legged right tackle Mike Remmers with a double team on Von Miller if Dickson has to react to a safety coming after his quarterback. Fullback Mike Tolbert can’t lend a hand to slower-footed Michael Oher against DeMarcus Ware if a linebacker has suddenly pinned his ears back and is rushing.
And often, the Panthers like to have Dickson and Tolbert blocking on the same side so that the entire O-line can slide the other way. By green dog blitzing, that O-line slide gets nullified because the green-dog blitzers become the edge rushers, allowing the D-lineman to run twists and stunts just a few slots over against the sliding blockers.
With this proactive approach, the Broncos turned in one of the most dominant Super Bowl performances in history. The Panthers offense scored a season-low in points (10) and gave up season-highs in turnovers (four) and sacks (seven).
Adding players to the pass rush “flustered them a lot,” said safety T.J. Ward. “They didn’t expect that.”
Ward was asked if the Panthers showed them anything that they didn’t expect. “No. We read them like a book.”
“They did everything we watched on film,” said fellow safety Darian Stewart.
The safeties weren’t the only ones saying this. Marshall, when asked the question, laughed. (Causing linebacker Todd Davis, one locker over, to also laugh.) “They did everything that we saw on film,” Marshall said. “That’s the crazy thing. You’d think with two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl, they would do a new wrinkle. They did everything the same. Nothing new.”
The only man who could think of any unexpected play from Carolina was, of course, Coach Phillips. He cited the Ted Ginn throwback attempt to Newton (which the Broncos took away) and the misdirection third-and-short throw to Greg Olsen (which got the Broncos).
Besides green-dog blitzing, Phillips’ other big focus was taking away Carolina’s running game. The Panthers, with all of their heavy two-tight end and two-back sets, present a lot of moving pieces on the ground. But they’ll also run the ball out of what’s become the default formation leaguewide: three wide receivers. Phillips noticed something here. “They can’t run against a seven man front with three wide receivers.”
Few teams had exploited Carolina here because defenses often play a six-man front against three-receiver sets if it’s a passing situation. The Panthers are willing to still run in those situations, which concerned Phillips. So, to put an extra body in the front—which was crucial given that Newton must be treated as a ballcarrier—Phillips in certain scenarios replaced one of his nickel safeties with a fifth defensive lineman. That gave the Broncos five men along the line of scrimmage but still three corners in coverage. It’s a brilliant ploy because corners Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby can easily cover Carolina’s mediocre wide receivers one-on-one. An extra safety wasn’t necessary.
Taking away the run was critical for two reasons: (1) It’s what the Panthers do best; and (2) Stopping it creates the third-and-long situations that allow guys like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to tee off on iffy offensive tackles.
Not to mention, Denver felt that Carolina in obvious passing situations was schematically limited. “You can tell they spend more time on their run game than their passing game,” said Ward. “Their run game is intricate, with the hand-offs and the option runs, and guys pulling. Their passing game is pretty much what they show you in their previous weeks.”
And so the team that John Elway built to win via defense has claimed the franchise’s third Super Bowl thanks to a destructive defense. Talent was key, as it always is. But just as important is identifying the most advantageous ways to use the talent. The Broncos did this with tactical aggressiveness in all phases.