When we discussed the Denver Broncos prior to Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014, we talked about a record-setting offense. Mostly, we talked about quarterback Peyton Manning leading that unit to 606 points while throwing for 5,477 yards, both new single-season all-time highs.
Fast-forward two years, and the conversation has shifted as we begin to dissect Super Bowl 50 from every angle.
Now we’re talking about the league’s top-ranked defense. We’re talking about a pass rush that recorded 52 sacks throughout the regular season. And we’re talking about outside linebacker Von Miller, whose performance in the AFC Championship Game put him in exclusive company. Miller became just the second player since 1982 to finish with at least 2.5 sacks and an interception during a playoff game, according to ESPN.
We’re talking about Manning as a secondary figure who’s tagging along as his defense does the heavy lifting. And from the other side, the discussion will center around that defense, too, with no certain answer to a game-defining question.
How will the Carolina Panthers fare in unfamiliar territory against the hefty pass-rushing hammer swung by Denver?
You know, the same pass rush that throttled New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady repeatedly Sunday. As NFL.com’s Marc Sessler noted, the Broncos hit Brady more than any defense hit any quarterback in any other game this season, playoffs included.
Marc Sessler @MarcSesslerNFL
Tom Brady took more hits in this game (20) than any QB in any game all year -- regular season or playoffs.2016-1-24 23:35:51
The Panthers then have an immediate riddle to solve, one that threatens to extinguish the fire of their lava-spewing offense. They’ve outscored opponents by an astronomical 55-7 during the first half in their two playoff games, and Carolina is averaging 36.1 points per game since Week 11.
But those sky-scraping numbers have been posted against pass rushes far inferior to the one Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will try to navigate on Feb. 7. During the playoffs so far, he’s gone against the 17th- and 22nd-ranked pass-rushing defenses.
What’s even more concerning is the absence of top-tier challenges among Carolina's opponents throughout the season in that regard. The Panthers have now played 18 games in 2015-16 against 14 different opponents. That’s a wide swath of the league, which is a consequence of being one of two teams still standing in late January. Yet only two of those opponents fielded a top-10 pass rush: the Houston Texans in Week 2, and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9.
Trying to take anything of significance from those games is difficult due to the tiny sample size. But for what it’s worth, Newton still remained in one working piece during both contests and wasn’t pressured too much.
|Newton vs. Packers and Texans|
|Game||Comp %||TDs||INTs||Yds||Yds/attempt||Sacks||Passer Rating|
His completion percentage dwindled in both games, as overall Newton connected on 59.8 percent of his throws. And against the Texans, his yards per attempt also took a tumble, finishing far below his average of 7.8 over 16 games.
But that’s about all we have as a measuring stick to gauge how well the Panthers' surprisingly adequate offensive line can handle relentless pressure. It feels safe to assume there will be bending come Super Bowl Sunday, because the Broncos seem to topple every offensive line at least a few times. Whether there’s both bending and breaking rests largely on Panthers left tackle Michael Oher, and which version of him shows up.
A year ago, the notion of Oher being a central figure in any Super Bowl would have sent his quarterback searching for higher ground. Oher was quickly heading toward first-round flop status after giving up 93 pressures in 27 starts between 2013 and 2014, according to Pro Football Focus.
That was nightmare fuel, as most of those starts came at right tackle. Yet, for reasons only they understood at the time, way back in May the Panthers made it clear their intention was for Oher to be a pillar as Newton’s blindside protector.
“He’s very key,” head coach Ron Rivera told ESPN.com’s David Newton. “We didn’t bring him in—and [general manager] Dave [Gettleman] wanted to make sure he signed a two-year deal—just to have him here and let him go.”
Those were confident words about someone who resembled a turnstile for much of 2014.
Then something strange happened. As noted by the PFF pressure metrics below, Oher has slowly removed the stink of being a complete liability.
|Michael Oher's career revival|
|Season||Pressures allowed (rank)||Sacks|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
He may never reach the upper echelon of left tackles, which means the 29-year-old won’t justify the 23rd overall pick invested in him by the Baltimore Ravens in 2009.
But that’s not the Panthers’ problem. Rivera has received exactly what he needed from Oher: a tackle who can be impressively serviceable.
Newton’s mobility and sense for the pocket keeps the demand for perfection from his blockers low, as does a powerful rushing offense to make sure defensive fronts stay honest. The Panthers finished second while averaging 142.6 rushing yards per game this season.
The concern, however, comes back to that lack of exposure against premier pass-rushers, and it’s rooted in some dud afternoons while trying to keep Newton upright as much weaker defenses teed off.
Of the 24 hurries Oher allowed in 2015, five came in Week 16. Carolina’s opponent then? The Atlanta Falcons and their bottom-dwelling pass rush that generated a meager 19 sacks.
Then there’s Oher’s other hiccup. He was responsible for four of the 33 sacks Newton took, and half of them came in one game against another soft pass rush.
The Jacksonville Jaguars would eventually finish 20th with their 36 sacks. That mattered little back in Week 1, when the old Oher was present. In the first quarter, he was caught flat-footed with a rigid stance and little blocking base as defensive end Chris Clemons closed in from the left side.
That lack of balance became worse when Oher reached to punch, trying to halt Clemons’ forward rush.
He was staggering and hadn’t made solid contact anyway. Clemons capitalized by planting hard with his right foot, then spinning. Oher was lost, and Newton had no chance.
You’re probably thinking, “whatever, that play is over five months old.” And your instinct to shrug might not be wrong.
Oher has improved significantly since then, along with the entire Panthers offensive line. Newton had an average of 2.85 seconds each dropback, per PFF, which tied for fifth among the 26 quarterbacks who took at least half of their team’s snaps. He also endured only four games with three-plus sacks.
But the journey into uncharted pass-rushing waters that’s ahead leads to fears of the old Oher returning. And on the other side, right tackle Mike Remmers (46 pressures allowed in 2015) could also crumble easily.
If those fears become reality, we'll see a much different Panthers offense, with those first-half fireworks fizzling fast.