Jonathan Stewart Is Well Positioned to Have a Big Impact on Super Bowl 50

He's not going to be headlining any news stories about the game, but Jonathan Stewart could prove to be one of the most important players for Carolina in the Super Bowl.

A quick Google search of "Cam Newton Super Bowl 50" returns over 22 million results. "Peyton Manning Super Bowl 50" returns about 16 million. 

"Jonathan Stewart Super Bowl 50"? Less than 10 percent of that.

The battle between the top two defenses in the league is making headlines. Cam Newton's MVP-caliber season is making headlines. This potentially being Manning's last game is making headlines. But as far as the action on the field goes, Jonathan Stewart could have a bigger impact than all of that. 

His regular season production was decent, and he's ramped it up significantly in the playoffs. The matchup against the Broncos defense is a tough one, but it's a perfect matchup for him to thrive and play a big role in the Panthers' success.

Stewart's 2015 Season

There were some lofty expectations placed on Stewart in his first season of having the backfield to himself, after DeAngelo Williams signed with the Steelers. And in a lot of ways, he struggled to live up to the hype.

He played 13 games, missing three to injury, and his numbers weren't much better than they were in past seasons. That's not to say they were bad -- he posted 989 yards on 242 carries and 6 touchdowns, and was on a 16-game pace for a career-high in rushing yards. But his 4.1 yards per carry were the lowest he's posted in any of his six 100-plus carry seasons.

Looking at our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures how many points a player contributes compared to expectation level (you can read more about NEP in our glossary), Stewart was pretty average as far as efficiency goes. He posted a -0.02 Rushing NEP per carry, which ranks 34th among the 72 backs to see at least 50 carries on the year. His 39.26% Success Rate, which measures the percentage of carries on which a back produces a positive NEP, ranked 37th in the group.

Stewart missed the last three regular season games, and that time off seems to have been exactly what he needed, though, as his production has seen a huge spike in the playoffs.

Playoff Production

While Cam Newton's four-touchdown performance in the NFC Championship is getting tons of attention (deservedly so), Stewart has put together two solid games in the playoffs so far.

He saw 19 carries in both games, going for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns versus Seattle and 83 yards against Arizona. Looking at our numberFire Live data, he's sporting a 3.69 Rushing NEP on his 38 playoff carries.

Making those numbers even more impressive is the quality of defenses he has faced. When adjusted for strength of schedule, the Seahawks' -0.06 Defensive Rushing NEP per play ranks sixth in the NFL, while the Cardinals' -0.10 ranks second.

Primed for Success

Looking at those last two matchups and the upcoming matchup against the Broncos defense, it looks like Stewart is in line for another big performance:

Team Passing NEP per Play (rank) Rushing NEP per play (rank)
Seahawks 0.00 (5th) -0.06 (6th)
Cardinals 0.05 (8th) -0.10 (2nd)
Broncos -0.10 (1st) -0.08 (5th)

He has already had strong performances against two top run defenses, and while Denver is strong against the run, that's not where they stand out. They have by far the best pass defense in the league, but with defending the run being the closest thing to a soft spot they have, Stewart could be in for a big work load.

Now, both Panthers playoff games have played out in ways that are always going to lend themselves toward running back success. They got up 31-0 on the Seahawks in the first half, and they led by as much as 27 against the Cardinals. Their regular season pass-to-run ratio was 1.02 but, in the Divisional Round, it was a crazy 0.54, and in the NFC Championship, it was 0.76. Stewart's touches weren't all as a result of lopsided scores, though, as both of his touchdowns came in the first quarter against Seattle, and he saw nine first-half carries against Arizona.

It's hard to ever project a blowout in the Super Bowl, but this game looks like it could easily be another one that ends up playing out in Stewart's favor. Oddsmakers have the Panthers as 5.5-point favorites, and our numbers give them a 63.7 percent shot at winning. If they can get a decent lead going, Stewart will play a big role in trying to drain the clock and ice the game.

He's flying under the radar a bit, but coming off of two solid playoff performances, and with the Panthers sizable favorites against a Broncos team that is more vulnerable to the run than the pass, look for Jonathan Stewart to have a big impact on how Super Bowl 50 turns out.