The Denver Broncos defensive front made life a living hell for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the AFC Championship. Outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware provided constant pressure around the horn. Inside rushers Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson dominated the Patriots' guards to the point where Brady usually had nowhere to move that wouldn't put him in harm's way. As a unit, along with backups like Shane Ray, Shaquil Barrett, Antonio Smith and Vance Walker, the Broncos put on one of the more dominating playoff performances that I've ever seen. As close as that game ended up being and the fact that it went down to the wire has convinced me that any lesser performance from those guys may well have changed the ultimate outcome.
Looking ahead to the Super Bowl matchup against the Carolina Panthers and their ridiculously physically gifted quarterback Cam Newton, I'm sure fans are wondering if the Broncos pass rushers can have a repeat performance of what they did to Brady.
No, they can not have the same kind of performance against Newton because of the kind of quarterback he is and the kind of passing offense the Panthers run, which tends to over emphasize protecting the quarterback.
That does not preclude the Broncos from getting a performance from their defensive front that will be good enough to help Denver win the game. They can get enough pressure on Newton to make a difference, but they are going to have to go about it differently.
Normally what opposing defensive fronts do to account for mobile quarterbacks is to go to more of a power-rush game plan across the board so they can restrict running lanes inside. It isn't that forcing them to run outside is necessarily a better option, but if a mobile quarterback is able to take off straight ahead, well, you know how they say the quickest route between two points is a straight line?
It is especially dangerous to let Newton take off up the inside because that dude is every bit of 6'5 and 250 pounds, which is taller and heavier than all but one of the Broncos' inside linebackers (Brandon Marshall). Let's just say if Cam gets up a full head of steam into the secondary, it could get real ugly for the those guys. Also if you have good bull rushers, and the Broncos do, those guys can, at least in theory, escape off those bull rushes when they see Cam break contain and, again, in theory, take him down easier when he is running laterally.
The Broncos also like to run more pass-rush games, specifically TEX games (defensive tackle penetrates upfield in the B gap, edge rushers takes a couple steps upfield outside then loops inside the defensive tackle) when facing mobile quarterbacks as a way to get safe pressure while also covering the running lanes inside. Any time you get pass rushers exchanging lanes there is a chance somebody on the opposing offensive line will have a brain fart and just let a guy go, so it's usually a viable strategy.
This is basically the same game plan the Broncos utilized against the Steelers in the divisional round of the playoffs because they were also concerned with Ben Roethlisberger's mobility. Big Ben has always been good at moving around the pocket. If he can get five yards by taking off running when everybody is covered, he will take it, which of course teams have to account for. That made it harder to get constant pressure the way they did against the Patriots, but the Broncos' front was still good enough as a unit to get three sacks as well as other hurries. It's not exactly splitting the atom here; it's basically the same standard operating procedure against mobile quarterbacks that most teams try to employ.
I'm not exactly sure that's the right approach to take with Cam Newton. He is just too much of an anomaly to expect the same things to work on him. Yeah, it's true if your edge rushers get way upfield trying to rush him he is likely going to burn the rest of the defense by taking off running up one of the inside lanes those deep pass rushes left open.
At the same, and this is very important, his offensive line now completely understands how most defensive fronts are going to try to attack them. You see those guys across the board basically sitting down and waiting for bull rushes, inside moves and pass rush games while not giving the slightest fuck about wide edge rushers.
It's almost comical how top heavy Panthers left tackle Michael Oher gets at times while taking his pass set at this point. I say comical because against good edge rushers who can beat you outside, offensive tackles are usually taught to keep their weight back when they punch. If they should happen to miss with their punch while keeping their weight back they can still recover against a good speed rush if they have good footwork. However, if they don't sit back and instead lean forward into their punch, good edge rushers will knock their hands down and leave them in their dust.
Oher and just about all the other Panthers offensive linemen almost dare pass rushers to try outside moves with how hard they sit down on bull rushes and inside moves. However, as I pointed out before, few ever actually try them because most teams are so busy preaching what?
Bull rushes, inside moves and pass-rush games.
Miller and Ware are fucking virtuosos when it comes to turning the corner on offensive tackles; you can ask Tom Brady if you don't believe me. While they can be decent bull rushers, it would be silly to waste their pass-rushing talents by having them running down the middle of Oher and Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers all night long. Bigger than that, if they are not allowed to use their tremendous get-off to get Oher and Remmers bailing out of their stances, Miller and Ware aren't going to be nearly as effective as usual. They can usually catch an offensive tackle still going backwards and just use their momentum against them to knock them off balance on a bull rush, but I don't see them being able to do that if Oher and Remmers are allowed to just sit there on the line of scrimmage and damn near run block because they know the bull rush is coming. It just isn't bound to end well.
So, what should they do since this seems like a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation?
My advice is that they line up in a 3-4 look as much as possible with a zero nose and two three-techniques. Then, let Miller and Ware run wild around the edges all damn game. Mind you the "zero nose" doesn't always have to literally be a nose tackle. They can also stick a linebacker there, let him hit the center then act as a spy on Newton in the middle while the Broncos secondary plays man-to-man.
Let me make sure I say this clearly because really and truly, it's the ability of their secondary to matchup well one-on-one with Carolina's skill position players across the board that would allow the traditional 3-4 alignment work for the Broncos. That alignment would also allow the Broncos to play assignment football against any read option plays or quarterback running plays that the Panthers might employ without having to worry about their secondary, save maybe one safety, having to be all that involved in stopping the run.
The Broncos tend to line up in a traditional 3-4 alignment most games anyway, so it wouldn't be much of a stretch.
I would also send five or more rushers as much as possible, even when the Broncos aren't in a 3-4 alignment. If you go back and look at the NFC Championship, the Cardinals actually did do some good things on defense. They even got some pressure on Newton a time or two. What you notice is that when they did get pressure, they were usually in a traditional 3-4 alignment with the B gaps covered and often times sending an extra rusher or two.
The pass-rush games will help too, but the problem is they lack effectiveness when the edge rushers aren't using speed rushes. With a four-man rush, you are always going to have to worry about Newton taking off and running because you will always be at least a gap short. Hell, the Cardinals were doing a good job of restricting the passing lanes with the sop of bull rushes. The one time when they slipped up and got upfield on a third-and-10 in the fourth quarter, the Panthers ran a quarterback draw and Cam picked up 14 yards. The Broncos can't blitz every play, but damned if I wouldn't blitz early and often if I were the one calling the shots. Their secondary can handle it, and it's going to be necessary to make Cam uncomfortable trying to throw the ball.
Even then the Broncos aren't guaranteed of getting Newton on the ground, but at least it will give them more of a chance to do so.
The only question in my mind is if the Broncos will actually adjust what they did against the Steelers to look a little more like what I described. I can't see them getting enough pressure on Cam if Miller and Ware are bull rushing all game.
When I look back at the second half of their second game against the Chiefs this year, what I said they need looks really familiar. Ware didn't play in that game, so it wasn't quite as effective against Kansas City as they will need it to be against Carolina. Still, Miller was damn near unblockable after halftime when he started taking more chances around the corner. Even though the Chiefs blew their doors off because Peyton Manning sucked ass, there were still some positives to take from how they rushed Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, another guy who is pretty mobile, in the second half.
Additionally the Titans, who sacked Newton a season-high (for him) five times, lined up in a 3-4 alignment on three out of those five sacks and sent five or more rushers on all five.
Don't let the final score fool you, the same Tennessee Titans that only won three games were breathing down the Panthers' necks headed into the fourth quarter with the score just 17-10. That's one film I would be pouring over if I were Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
If Phillips lets his edge rushers do what they do best and combines it with a middle spy or extra rushers most of the game, I could definitely see Ware and Miller exposing Oher and Remmers for the average tackles that they really are and getting Newton down on the ground repeatedly. I just can't be sure if he Phillips will go with that game plan and anything less than that truly may not be enough for the Broncos to win.