Sunday will mark the first time John Fox has returned to Carolina since being fired following the 2010 season. Since joining the Broncos, Fox has gone 13-11 as Denver's head coach. Having helped the Broncos to win the AFC West in 2011, Fox is looking to claim a division title for a second consecutive season.
The Panthers represent Denver's next test. Below, we cover five keys to the game for Fox's Broncos to pull out a victory over his former team.
1. The Broncos Must Contain Carolina’s Read-Option
The read-option is something Denver is very familiar with, having run a similar offense with quarterback Tim Tebow last season. The key to stopping it on defense is by playing assignment football—the defensive ends/outside linebackers cannot crash down the line of scrimmage, as is their natural instinct.
In read-option runs, the quarterback puts the DE/OLB (depending on the defensive scheme, it could be either the DE or OLB) on an island. If the OLB crashes hard down the line of scrimmage, the QB will keep the ball and run himself. Here’s a look from last week’s game in Washington:
In the above image, the Panthers are preparing to run a read-option run, isolating Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. An aggressive player, Kerrigan is eager to crash down the line of scrimmage, looking to track down the running back. Unfortunately for Ryan, that’s exactly what Carolina wanted him to do.
As the outside linebacker reads run, he crashes hard, neglecting his outside contain responsibility. Quarterback Cam Newton reads Kerrigan crashing and keeps the ball himself.
By the time Washington’s defense realizes it has been fooled, Newton has already rushed for 10 yards and gained a first down. Had Kerrigan trusted his teammates and played his responsibility, the play could have ended very differently.
So how can an OLB/DE properly read this play Carolina has run so successfully this season? By staying at home (in football terms, not literally).
Below, veteran linebacker London Fletcher, not as spry as Kerrigan but more experienced and wiser, counters Carolina’s read-option to perfection.
Trusting his fellow linebackers and defensive linemen to do their jobs and clean up anything he turns back towards the middle of the field, Fletcher knows his responsibility on this play is to contain the edge by not crashing down the line of scrimmage.
In the above graphic, the OLB reads the run and stays home, waiting to pursue running back Jonathan Stewart or keep Newton from getting around the edge.
As the play develops, Fletcher engages his blocker while still maintaining the edge, keeping Newton from running outside. As a result, Newton’s only option is to turn back inside, where Fletcher’s teammates are able to converge on Cam.
By not crashing down the line of scrimmage and playing his responsibility, Fletcher limited Newton to a three-yard gain on the same play that Newton ran for 10 yards earlier in the game. Denver’s outside linebackers and defensive ends can have similar success this weekend by containing the edge and not playing overly aggressive.
The Broncos, of course, are very familiar with the zone read-option after running it extensively last season.
In 2011, the Broncos offense had a hot streak in which their running game was seemingly unstoppable. As DE/OLB’s crashed down the line of scrimmage, running lanes were opened up for Tebow and running back Willis McGahee. Towards the end of the season, though, teams began to catch on and play more disciplined and Denver’s read-option’s effectiveness dwindled.
When asked by the media about the similarities between Carolina’s offense and the Broncos offense from last season, Coach John Fox responded —
“A lot of those (are) similarities, yeah. Those are things that will help us in our preparation,” said Fox. ”They’ve got some gifted players on offense. I know that team pretty well. There are some new players there but they’ve got some talented guys for sure. They can be explosive. It’ll be a tough test for us.”
Knowing how teams stopped them last year, the Broncos can now turn around and contain Carolina’s read-option scheme. With a coaching staff that has operated it and defensive players that have practiced against it, the Panthers' zone read-option offense should not stump Denver’s defense.
2. The Broncos Must Contain Cam Newton, Forcing Him To Stay In the Pocket
It’s a well-known fact that Cam Newton is an explosive player, especially in the open field. That is why it will be important for Denver’s defense to contain him on both passing and running plays. This second key is a sub-point of the first key, but an important factor for Denver's success nonetheless.
When pass rushing, Denver’s linemen and linebackers must be wary of crashing down too hard, allowing Newton to find running lanes outside.
“He’s a terrific talent,” said Fox. ”He’s big, strong, fast, he’s got a very strong arm. I think that was indicative of the kind of rookie season he had a year ago.”
To keep that “terrific talent” from creating big plays, the Broncos should gear towards containing Newton and forcing him to beat them through the air against Denver’s top-10 ranked pass defense.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Broncos will be looking to counter Carolina’s explosive offense with their up-tempo offensive unit led by quarterback Peyton Manning, which brings us to Denver’s third key to securing a victory.
3. The Broncos Must Maintain a Rushing Attack, Supporting Manning’s Aerial Attack
The Broncos ground game has been solid this season thanks in large part to the effective passing game. Having to prepare for Manning and Co. with multiple defensive back schemes, opposing teams have been run on easily by Denver at times this season. And when teams do stack the box to limit Denver’s rushing effectiveness, Manning has thrived, averaging 8.2 yards per completion and over 300 yards per game.
With a balanced offensive attack, the Broncos have worn down defenses this season, scoring 30 points in four consecutive games. If Denver continues to find success both on the ground and through the air, Carolina’s defense will wear down, which will making driving the football even easier for Manning.
4. The Broncos Must Win the Turnover Battle
Both teams boast less-than-attractive turnover differential numbers this season. The Broncos (minus-four) rank 23rd in the league, while the Panthers (minus-five) rank 24th. Turnovers—or lack of turnovers for either team—will likely decide the game either way.
Newton has thrown eight interceptions and fumbled an addition eight times this season. If the Broncos can force him to make mistakes while staying mistake-free themselves, Sunday’s game could turn into a beat-down.
5. The Broncos Must Finish Strong
Finishing games has not been a problem for the Broncos this season.
Per the team, the Broncos have led the NFL with a plus-80 scoring differential in the fourth quarter this year—outscoring each opponent in the final frame—to represent the best mark by a team through eight games since the 1970 NFL merger.
Building an early lead would make a 'W' easier to attain for Denver on Sunday. Putting the Panthers away after halftime would guarantee their sixth 'W' of the season.