In the AFC Championship, the Denver Broncos defense clobbered Tom Brady, sacking him four times, hitting him 20 times, and forcing him into two interceptions.
In a 20-18 win, it was the Broncos’ impressive defense that ultimately got them to the Super Bowl.
However, against the Panthers, the Broncos face a very different opponent, and their plan of attack against Tom Brady and the Patriots may be moot for one big reason.
The Panthers can run the ball.
As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell wrote after the AFC Championship, the Broncos didn’t respect the Patriots ability to run the ball whatsoever. Brady has never been a runner, and the Patriots were without Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, their two starting running backs. The Patriots’ backup running backs combined for just 31 yards two weeks ago.
Instead, the Broncos didn’t blitz the Patriots, sending only three- and four-man rushes at Brady while dropping everyone else into coverage for the Patriots pass-heavy attack.
Cam Newton and the Panthers present a totally different challenge because of their ability to run the ball. According to Football Outsiders, the Panthers had the sixth-best running offense in the NFL, led by Jonathan Stewart’s 989 yards and Newton’s 636 yards.
Unlike Brady, Newton isn’t afraid to leave the pocket, and if the Broncos were to use the same game plan against him, they’d suddenly be scrambling to get defenders to bring down Newton. Similarly, the Broncos have to account for Stewart. Dropping seven into coverage while sending four linemen at Newton could leave a dangerous hole for Carolina to exploit.
The combination of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware will present problems for Carolina’s offensive line, but both players can’t simply attack Newton like they did with Brady. Carolina has the pieces to exploit an over-aggressive pass rush, which means Miller and Ware will have to play it more steadily. Barnwell suggests in his Super Bowl prediction column that the Panthers may have to rush from the edge while using a linebacker as a spy or to fill that edge rusher’s hole.
And while the matchup may not be ideal, the Broncos were the NFL’s best defense by a wide margin this season. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is considered one of the best in the NFL and surely has something different up his sleeves.
Denver will have its hands full with this Panthers offense, and it would be unwise to go after Newton with the same intensity they attacked Brady.