So here we are, one game left. The week has been full of build up and interviews. The Super Bowl has become one of the biggest sporting events of the year, now viewed around the world, although exact figures are hard to come by. The hype has been there, so has the analysis if you go looking for it.
There is always a tension in where to pitch the coverage of American Football, with twenty-two people carrying out two sets of complex coordinated actions on every single play, there is something going on everywhere. One of the reasons that the game is so fascinating also makes it hard to broadcast. It is pretty much impossible to cover every nuance, and so receivers appear wide open mid-play and the viewer needs a replay to see what happened. That is if the team obligingly is not running a hurry-up offence. The international feed has often featured a simplified commentary aimed at the new people who are drawn into the spectacle of the NFL for this one game that us obsessives have been following for months. You can’t blame the broadcasters, the NFL is not an intuitive game due to its tactical nature and stop start game flow. Plus not every fan is interested in what route concepts are used to attack single high man coverage as opposed to a two deep zone.
I am looking forward to watching the game live, and going through the coaching tape afterwards and then taking a break. I love writing about American Football, but what I like doing is looking at the games and writing about the approach and coaching. I will dip in an out a bit more this offseason, but I am ready for a break. The grind of covering the sport year round must be tough given the competition to deliver news ahead of each other, but we don’t actually know what the affects of the offseason will be until well into September. In fact it can take years for a coach to turn around a franchise, a draft can’t be evaluated properly until years afterwards. I love talking football as much as the next fan, and we all have instant opinions, but the truth is that things take time to develop, and what I enjoy is watching that happen over the long term.
However, today is very much about the here and now so let’s grab this last game and squeeze as much out of it as possible as I take a look at the match up for tonight.
The obvious place to start is the one that has garnered the most coverage in the build up to the game, which is the Broncos defence against the Panthers offence. This is because it is the best contest in the game, with everyone being wary of how effective the Broncos offence will be, but it is also a fascinating tactical encounter. The Broncos defence is strong at all three levels, but will be facing a unique offence. The Panthers run the ball more, and with greater complexity than any other team this season. They have built their offence around the dual threat of Cam Newton, but also use extra blocking players in conjunction with forcing the opposition to account for the quarterback. One of the reasons this causes problems for a defence is historically the quarterback was too valuable to expose to multiple hits and so was unlikely to move the ball himself unless scrambling. The read-option changed this in recent years, but there were still limits to how many hits you would want them to take. Cam Newton is built like a defensive end, and the Panthers are not afraid to repeatedly use him in power running situations. This will cause the Broncos defence issues as they have to account for him in their run defence, whilst being aware that the Panthers also use these run looks to create play-action passes to throw the ball deep. If your safety is stepping up to account for a running quarterback, and that same quarterback then pulls up and throws the ball you have big problems.
The good news for the Broncos is that they have a pair of outside pass rushers who are not only good at straight up getting round the edge of the offence, but run stunts by moving inside as their the tackle moves out. This can help to counter the read-option as it makes the read that the quarterback has to make more complex and can slow it down. There are other ways you can play a running quarterback is by getting your edge defenders to play a specific player, i.e. they have responsibility for the outside man, forcing the play in towards the rest of the defence, or focussing inside whilst a linebacker scrapes over the top to cover the outside player. I expect to see all three from the Broncos talented front seven, and they also have two hard hitting safeties that will be able to help in run support. Their secondary should also be able to matchup against the Panthers skill players, and it will fascinating to see how they mix up man and zone coverage as they try to prevent the deep strikes that have served the Panthers so well all season.
The story of the Broncos offence all year has been Peyton Manning, but there have been other problems affecting them all year. The offseason saw some strange decisions in that the Broncos brought in a new coach whose zone run scheme was much different to what they had been running previously, meaning the offensive line had to learn a new scheme as well as protect an ageing quarterback. This offence has not been able to move the ball consistently on the ground or through the air, but they can get big runs here and there. More importantly perhaps, since coming back from his injury Peyton Manning seems to have embraced his new role and has not thrown an interception in the playoffs, which is in stark contrast to his play during the regular season. Also, when they are down in the red zone, his lack of arm strength is less of an issue and he still has the smarts to get touchdowns as demonstrated by the throws to tight end Owen Daniels last week.
However, they are facing a defence that has been playing well all year. They may not be as consistently good at all three levels as the Broncos defence, but the Panthers coaching staff have done a great job of making the best of the talent they have around theie super start players. In Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis they have one of the best pairings of linebackers in the league, although it will be interesting to see how Davis will play two weeks from breaking his forearm given that I have no idea how he is even contemplating it. The defence does not blitz much, but defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei are going to cause the Broncos offensive line problems all day, which a rotation of ends will apply pressure from the outside. The question will be if the Broncos secondary, which apart from stand out corner Josh Norman, is a little patchwork but plays their zone scheme very well.
The only team to beat the Panthers this year were the Atlanta Falcons, and they did this by running the ball consistently to bring up Davis and Kuechly, before attacking the defence deep. The problem for the Broncos is that Manning doesn’t have the arm for long balls any more, but it seems unlikely that they would be able to run a Patriots style short passing game either. They will have to commit to running the ball, which they have done under Gary Kubiak, and hope to generate play-action passing and enough long running plays to get into a position to score. I am looking forward to seeing how they try to do this, but I am not sure if they have the tools to be successful.
Overall I see this game as either being a close tight affair, with the Broncos hanging around and making it competitive as they have done all year, or the Panthers could really run away with it. However, with as good a defence as the Broncos have and two weeks for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to prepare, I think it is more likely to be a close game. A lot will depend on what wrinkles the coaches prepare for this game and who executes their game plan more cleanly, but I hope it will be a good contest. I am not particularly invested in who wins as both results would have good stories, but it would be nice if Manning could have at least one last good performance to go out on.
Roll on Super Bow 50, let’s hope it lives up to the hype.