Here's How the Broncos Turned Things Around to Beat Cam Newton Last Night
When the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers met in Super Bowl 50, the story of the night was the impact of the pass rush by the eventual champs. With the two teams meeting again for the opening game of the 2016 NFL regular season, it figured to play a big part again.
Early on in the game, it was clear that both the Broncos wanted to get after Cam Newton again, and that the Panthers were better prepared to protect their quarterback. A Wade Phillips defense is rarely a stranger to bringing extra defenders on blitzes. That was the case last season, when the Broncos had the fourth-highest rate with five or more rushers, per the Football Outsiders Almanac, and it was the case Thursday night when the Broncos brought five or more on 21 of Carolina’s 34 drop backs (61.8 percent).
Overall, Newton had an okay night passing the ball by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform, according to historical data. Per numberFire Live, Newton had a total Passing NEP of 2.08 on 36 drop backs -- 0.06 Passing NEP per dropback. For some reference, that's well above his Super Bowl 50 performance, but still below the per drop back average last year (0.11).
The First Half
In the first half, the Panthers were able to slow down the Broncos pass rush with a variety of different looks. Carolina went back to the more exotic run game that made them successful last season but was not prevalent in the game last February. When dropping back to pass, the Panthers also made sure their quarterback was protected. This involved either keeping an extra blocker in or making sure he was chipping a defender -- likely Von Miller -- before starting a route. That helped Newton stay in the pocket just long enough to get passes off, especially on third down.
Obvious passing situations against the Denver pass rush can be deadly, but Carolina was able to hold it off in the first half -- spectacularly well. On third downs in the first half, Newton was 6/6 for 70 yards and a Passing NEP per drop back of 1.53. The Panthers ran a combination of extra blockers, and keeping Newton shallow in the pocket didn't allow defenders to turn the corner wide and beat tackles on an island.
Here’s a 3rd-and-6 play early in the second quarter, deep in Carolina’s own territory. The Broncos bring five with Miller on a stunt inside, but Trai Turner recognizes it, passes Derek Wolfe off to Mike Remmers, and initiates first contact on Miller. Meanwhile, Jonathan Stewart also joins in on the chip of Miller before moving on and allowing center Ryan Kalil to double team Miller with Turner. With three blockers on Miller, Newton is able to make get a gain of nine.
Later in the same drive, the Panthers are now inside the red zone for a 3rd-and-7. Newton takes the snap from shotgun, but barely drops back, firing a quick strike to Greg Olsen for a gain of 15. It’s just quick enough to avoid the rush of Sylvester Williams, who beats Andrew Norwell inside with a spin move.
The Second Half
However, that success didn't continue in the second half. While Newton’s performance was still positive on third downs, his total Passing NEP on third downs in the second half (1.28) was less than what he averaged per play in the first.
Two of Newton’s three sacks also came in clear passing situations on third down. The first came early in the third quarter on 3rd-and-3. The Panthers lined up in a tight double stack formation. The four receivers, as well as Jonathan Stewart, went out for routes, which left the Panthers in a situation they were trying to avoid -- one-on-one protection against the Denver defensive line. DeMarcus Ware blew threw Michael Oher for the quick sack, while Miller was getting through Mike Remmers on the other side.
The dip in play was not just on third down, though. The Panthers had a much tougher time beating the blitz in the second half than they did in the first.
|Blitz||Plays||Passing NEP||Passing NEP/Play|
|1st Half vs. 5||6||6.69||1.12|
|2nd Half vs. 5||8||2.75||0.34|
|1st Half vs. 6||2||0.93||0.47|
|2nd Half vs. 6||3||-3.05||-1.02|
Throughout the game, the Broncos were getting to Newton, but the sacks weren’t coming and the quarterback was successful through the air. Wisely, that didn't make the Broncos change their strategy, and the pressure finally got to Newton late in the game. It wasn’t near the same impact as the Super Bowl, and there was some debate about the viciousness of some of the hits, but the Broncos pass rush -- again -- helped guide the team to victory over the Panthers.