The Denver defense might be the best in the league, but they will face their biggest test yet with Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller sacks New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during the third quarter of the AFC Conference Championship game.
—Photo by Gabriel Christus
There’s no question the Denver Broncos boast the best defense in the NFL, both statistically and anecdotally. The D dominated the regular season. They toppled Big Ben in the divisional and took the shine off Golden Boy Brady in the AFC Championship.
And now, one final enormous obstacle stands between Denver and a third Super Bowl title: quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
There are many important facets to this showdown—how Peyton will play in what’s likely to be the concluding act of his “last rodeo,” or the meeting of the minds between Denver coach Gary Kubiak and Carolina coach Ron Rivera—but no aspect of Super Bowl 50 is more important than the battle between Cam Newton and the Denver defense.
First, on Cam: The former Heisman Trophy winner and this season’s front-runner MVP candidate has looked invincible in the playoffs as the Panthers sent Seattle packing in the divisional and then demolished Arizona in the NFC Championship game. He’s loose, he’s confident, and he’s dabbing and dancing all over the place. The impact of his contagious swagger, along with his incredible on-field growth since being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, is undeniable.
And while Denver has stifled its fair share of talented quarterbacks this season, Newton poses a unique set of problems for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The Broncos have showed that they can contain pocket passers such as Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tom Brady, but can they contain the dual-threat of Newton, who threw for 35 scores and rushed for 10 more during the regular season?
In the AFC Championship, Von Miller and his comrades repeatedly put Brady on the turf. Brady was sacked four times and knocked down 20 times—the most abuse any QB has taken in a game since 2006. It was brilliant. It was brutal. It was utterly poetic how the Denver D made a Hall of Fame quarterback look so mediocre.
But to shut down Newton, the linebacking core of Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Brandon Marshall, and Danny Trevathan must value pocket containment over sacks, as a blitz-happy approach against Carolina’s max protect passing schemes isn’t the answer.
Instead, Denver needs to focus on stifling the Panthers’ running game and limiting passing yardage when Newton drops back. They need an effective spy (with his comparable size and speed, Miller is the man for this) on Newton at all times. And if the Broncos can make Carolina earn it each time they march down the field—and also limit the Panthers to a few field goals in the red zone—they’ve got a good chance of upsetting the Vegas line.
Amidst all Newton complications, this defense has the chance to accomplish something truly special. A win would put this team into rarified air with a select few squads in NFL history to emerge victorious with a less-than-average offense and a shutdown defense (the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers also come to mind).
In the end, though, leaving such a legacy all boils down to “dab control,” because if Newton can do what he’s done all season—get the Carolina offense rolling early and shimmy, twist, jive, Superman, and dab his way to 30 points or more—this Sunday will simply be the latest fruitless Super Bowl appearance for the Broncos.
But should the Denver D neutralize Newton? The Broncos won’t just be world champions—they’ll claim a defense underscored as one of the best units in the history of the game.