How Denver Dominated Cam Newton and the Panthers in Super Bowl 50

Denver stymied quarterbacks all year, but they took it to another level in the Super Bowl.

Sunday certainly was not a banner day for the 2015 NFL MVP.

During Super Bowl 50, Carolina Panthers quarterback and reigning MVP Cam Newton struggled to find open receivers -- or time to find them -- against the Denver Broncos defense. A consistent pass rush from Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware on the outside kept Newton pressured often, slowing down both the pass and Carolina’s ability to release their complex run schemes.

Some of this was to be expected, as Denver was the top-ranked defense for the season by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP, for the uninitiated, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. The Broncos defense ranked first this season in Adjusted NEP per play overall and against the pass and ranked fifth against the run.

While it’s hard to look at what the Broncos did to Newton and the rest of the Panthers on Sunday night and not place them among the recent great defenses, their regular season metrics don’t quite hold up against some of the best units since the turn of the century.

What Denver did do, though, was get through the playoffs by dominating the fourth, third and seventh best offenses by Adjusted NEP per play this season, and they might have saved their best performance for the biggest stage.

Quarterback at Your Own Risk

The Broncos' defense was a nightmare for any opposing quarterback this season, but Newton arguably got the worst end of it in the Super Bowl.

The Carolina quarterback finished with -17.15 Passing NEP against Denver, per the metrics from numberFire Live, his worst performance of the season -- almost four points worse than his Week 16 loss against the Atlanta Falcons.

This isn’t necessarily new for the Broncos' defense, though, as they’ve held almost every quarterback they have faced this season to negative NEP. Only three quarterbacks this season have finished games against the Broncos with positive Passing NEP.

Here’s what this defense has done to opposing passers this year during the regular season:

QB Comps/Atts Yards TD/INT Passing NEP Passing NEP/DB
Andrew Luck 21-36 252 2-0 15.84 0.43
Ben Roethlisberger 40-55 380 3-2 9.55 0.16
Tom Brady 23-42 280 3-0 7.29 0.16
Matthew Stafford 31-45 282 1-2 -2.86 -0.06
Jay Cutler 18-32 265 0-1 -3.42 -0.1
Teddy Bridgewater 27-41 269 1-0 -4 -0.08
Aaron Rodgers 14-22 77 0-0 -8.88 -0.36
Alex Smith* 33-56 395 1-2 -9.21 -0.15
Derek Carr* 38-68 384 3-1 -15.37 -0.2
Josh McCown 20-39 213 2-2 -16.78 -0.39
Joe Flacco 18-32 117 0-2 -17.09 -0.5
Philip Rivers* 39-70 431 2-2 -21.22 -0.28

*The numbers for Derek Carr, Philip Rivers and Alex Smith reflect both regular season games against Denver.

Andrew Luck's leading performance came in Week 8, and his 0.43 Passing NEP per drop back was more than double the next best quarterbacks on the list.

Those next two quarterbacks are Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady. This table reflects only the regular season meetings, so playoff numbers are not reflected (we’ll get to those in a bit). Both quarterbacks managed to gain positive NEP but took 55 and 42 attempts, respectively, to get there. On a per drop back basis, the 0.16 Passing NEP per dropback is well below what both men averaged during the regular season at 0.25.

Then we get to the playoffs, and the quarterbacks weren’t quite as lucky. Roethlisberger was barely able to squeak out a positive performance, but Brady -- as was the case for Newton -- had his worst game of the season.

QB Comps/Atts Yards TD/INT Passing NEP Passing NEP/DB
Ben Roethlisberger 24-37 339 0-0 1.45 0.04
Tom Brady 27-56 310 1-2 -7.09 -0.13
Cam Newton 18-41 265 0-1 -17.15 -0.42

This is not a loss that should be placed solely on the shoulders of Cam Newton. This isn’t to say Newton played particularly well, but for a quarterback who was the centerpiece of the offense -- both through the air and on the ground -- along with inferior talent at many positions, it would be greatly overlooking what the league MVP did to help get his team here to pin the loss on his play.

Not a Bum, Wade

If there is one man who could take a lion’s share of the credit for Denver’s defensive performance, it would be Wade Phillips. Sure, he had the talent on defense with the likes of Miller, Ware, Chris Harris, Malik Jackson and so much more, but most of those pieces were in place last season when the Broncos were just 11th in Adjusted NEP per play on defense. Last year, the same time frame when Phillips was out of the league without a coaching offer.

Phillips was able to take the amount of talent the Broncos had on defense from the borderline top-10 unit it was last year to an elite-level unit. He was able to do this by mixing up looks along the defensive front, alternating between creating pressure with extra rushers and backing off with just a three-man rush and simply putting these players in their best spots to win matchups.

Throughout the game, the Denver defense always appeared to be one step ahead of what the Carolina offense was going to do. This wasn’t just with the pass rush and through the air, either. The Broncos defense held up, slowed down and simplified what was the most complex run game in the league heading into this game.

Much of this was taking Newton out of the game plan on the ground. Newton ran just six times during the game, twice on scrambles for his second and third longest gains, and five of those six runs came in the second quarter. Heading into this game, Newton averaged 8.5 rushing attempts per game -- most of which were designed runs or zone reads as a main part of the game plan.

The last run came early in the third quarter on a packaged play with a bubble screen to the left of the formation. Newton appeared to rush the read and kept the ball for an attempt up the middle but was met immediately by Malik Jackson for a loss of a yard. At that point, Newton had already been sacked three times and hit on multiple other plays. The disruption from the defense altered not only the plays Carolina called but also the way the Panthers ran them once those calls were made.

Denver's execution of these plays did go far beyond just a domination in X's and O's. When the defense hit, they hit hard, causing four Panthers fumbles and being fortunate enough to recover three of them. Fumble recoveries can be largely random once the ball is one the ground, but the Broncos caused those fumbles in areas where the defense is most likely to recover, such a strip sacks. And it's no surprise both of Denver's strip sacks were the biggest plays of the game.

Based on the regular season numbers, the 2015 Broncos defense might not match up with the best of the great defenses over the past 15 years. But with what this team accomplished through the playoffs and the Super Bowl, it would be hard to deny their spot in the conversation.