Super Bowl

David J. Neal: Carolina Panthers’ ground game could be key to Super Bowl

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) runs against the Seattle Seahawks during the first half of an NFL divisional playoff football game in Charlotte, N.C. The Panthers haven't missed a beat since releasing their all-time leading rusher Deangelo Williams in the offseason in large part because of the way Jonathan Stewart has stepped up.
Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) runs against the Seattle Seahawks during the first half of an NFL divisional playoff football game in Charlotte, N.C. The Panthers haven't missed a beat since releasing their all-time leading rusher Deangelo Williams in the offseason in large part because of the way Jonathan Stewart has stepped up. AP

WHEN CAROLINA RUNS THE BALL

With Panthers quarterback Cam Newton a full participant in the running game on designed runs and option plays, Carolina comes at you on the ground almost like an old-fashioned wishbone or veer team. Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said as much to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King last week. But what makes the Panthers different is, no matter what they do, they do it with size and power. Running back Jonathan Stewart plays at 235 pounds, Newton weighs in at 245 and fullback Mike Tolbert goes 250. And Stewart can get outside, and Newton can go inside. Commit enough defenders to make sure you can bring down those SUVs, and the Panthers sneak in a reverse or end-around to speedy wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. During the regular season, Denver’s run defense ranked third in the league and first in yards per carry allowed. There is enough physicality on the Broncos’ defense, particularly among the linebackers, to make this close to a fair fight.

Edge: Carolina

WHEN CAROLINA THROWS THE BALL

If Carolina can run the ball, Carolina can throw it, too. If Carolina can’t run or run well enough, Denver has got a shot at the drive-killing sacks or interceptions that might be the Broncos’ best shot at scoring over the final two-thirds of the game. Newton has been completing 70 percent of his passes in the playoffs while averaging a fantastic 9.92 yards per attempt. So, nothing is assured by rushing to contain him in the pocket. The most important Denver pass rushers might not be sack-masters Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware coming off the edge, but rather ends Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson and nose tackle Sylvester Williams. Pressure up the middle tends to bother the throwing motion. Expect the Broncos to do a better job on Panthers tight end Greg Olsen than they did against New England tight end Rob Gronkowski in the AFC Championship Game just because Olsen is not as athletic as Gronkowski. And although Corey Brown and Ginn can get deep and Jerricho Cotchery is a dependable possession receiver, they’re not as good at their jobs as Denver’s players in the secondary, led by cornerback Aqib Talib, are at theirs.

Edge: Denver

WHEN DENVER RUNS THE BALL

An excellent Carolina run defense (fourth in the regular season, seventh in yards per carry allowed) could have been put away with the holiday decorations in January. The Panthers’ playoff leads morphed so big, so fast that Seattle and Arizona ran the ball only 28 times in the divisional round and NFC Championship Game. Denver should run C.J. Anderson effectively in the first half when the threat of Peyton Manning remains strong. When Manning starts to lose some distance or accuracy at distance, the Panthers’ safeties will start creeping into the box. Everything gets bogged down.

Edge: Carolina

WHEN DENVER THROWS THE BALL

Carolina’s defense fooled Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and Arizona’s Carson Palmer. It won’t fool Manning, Denver’s Brainiac 5, an NFL quarterback for as long as Wilson and Palmer put together. But, more than ever, Manning is at his best early in games when his fresh arm can get the ball deep to Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders. Carolina should squat on the short routes later in the game. It’s not just Manning’s arm strength that seems to have retired before Manning. His pocket feet, the in-pocket mobility that would have bought an extra second for quarterbacks such as Dan Marino and Tom Brady, no longer slide Manning away from trouble the way they once did. Carolina, led by Kawann Short, will get to Manning before Manning gets to the Panthers’ mediocre secondary (outside of Josh Norman).

Edge: Even

SPECIAL TEAMS

The kickers, Denver’s Brandon McManus and Carolina’s Graham Gano, cancel out as equals. Both have been perfect on field goals in the playoffs. Gano was 30 of 36 in the regular season, McManus was 30 of 35. Carolina dealt with returns on only 32.7 percent of its kickoffs. Denver did so on only 29.8 percent of its kickoffs. Punting also is a wash. It comes down to who has the player most likely to drop that bomb of a return that leaves the opponent reeling. That would be Ginn.

Edge: Carolina

COACHING

Each coach, Carolina’s Ron Rivera and Denver’s Gary Kubiak, experienced the Super Bowl and Super Bowl week as a backup player and as an assistant coach. Neither tends to get in his own way, a characteristic of coaches who mishandle the week. You could argue this game has the season’s best offensive coordinator, Carolina’s Mike Shula, and the best defensive coordinator, Denver’s Phillips. In fact, this season is an argument that each might be right where he should be as far as coaching. Shula has done wonders using Newton’s varied talents and the narrow talents of Carolina’s skill-position players. On the other side, Son of Bum has been a successful defensive designer since today’s coaches were players and the players were zygotes. If anyone can come up with a scheme to counter Carolina’s varied running attack, it’s Phillips.

EDGE: Even

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