After watching the Carolina Panthers hang an NFC Championship Game-record 49 points on the Arizona Cardinals, there's little question the Denver Broncos' top-ranked defense faces its stiffest test of the season in Super Bowl 50.
While finding a way to contain Panthers quarterback (and presumptive 2015 NFL MVP) Cam Newton no doubt tops Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' to-do list over the next 10 days or so, that will only get the Broncos halfway home where shutting down the Panthers' aerial attack is concerned.
For Denver to succeed in that regard, it also has to find a way to put the clamps on tight end Greg Olsen.
Over the past two years, Olsen has emerged as Newton's top target in the passing game. In fact, with young wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin out for the entire 2015 season, Olsen became Newton's go-to guy and then some. Not only did the ninth-year pro eclipse 1,000 receiving yards for the second consecutive year, but Olsen had nearly as many catches and yards as the Panthers' second- and third-leading receivers (Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery) combined.
|Carolina Panthers Leading Receivers 2015|
|Per Panthers Website|
That importance to the Carolina offense has carried over into the postseason. Through two playoff games Olsen has hauled in 12 catches for 190 yards and a touchdown. Half those grabs (for 113 yards) came in the NFC title game win, including this sick catch on the Panthers' first touchdown drive:
As Greg Olsen goes, so go the Panthers through the air. When Newton needs to move the sticks—has to make a play with his arm—you can bet the rent that his first read will be his 6'5", 253-pound tight end.
Of course, the Broncos just faced a team in the New England Patriots whose passing game centers on all-everything tight end Rob Gronkowski. And if Denver is going to repeat Sunday's outcome and win its third Super Bowl, it's going to have to do a better job against Olsen than it did against Gronkowski.
The thing is for a good portion of the game the Broncos were fairly effective in limiting Gronk. Using a combination of safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart over the middle and nickel corner Bradley Roby when Gronkowski lined up outside, Denver limited the big man to four catches for 67 yards through three-plus quarters.
That's about as well as can be expected against Gronkowski.
Then Ward and Stewart got hurt, and Gronk got to Gronking.
Over the Patriots' last two drives Sunday, Gronkowski had four grabs for 77 yards and a touchdown in which double coverage might as well have been no coverage at all.
As cornerback Chris Harris (who was playing safety because of the injuries) told David Krause of the Denver Post, there wasn't much that could be done to stop Gronkowski at that point:
It was a double-coverage call. It was an outside call, so I thought my safety would have me, but Gronk just made a play. He was double covered. I mean, double covered.
Gronk is one of the most dominant players in the league, and [Tom] Brady just made a great throw. I was learning another position on the run because we had no more safeties.
Granted, Olsen is a Pro Bowler, but he isn't Gronkowski (who is?). And Stewart and Ward told Krause they will be on the field in Santa Clara.
If Olsen finds the sort of room over the middle that Gronkowski did late in the AFC Championship Game, the Panthers are going to roll.
Fortunately, the Broncos have proved to be rather adept at limiting tight ends in 2015—at least tight ends who aren't named Rob Gronkowski.
Granted, the Broncos' average of 61.7 yards per game allowed to tight ends was slightly higher than the league average (55.1). But per the DVOA metric at Football Outsiders, Denver was a solid eighth in the NFL at defending the position in 2015.
Against the league's big names at the position, the Broncos fared even better.
|Broncos vs. Big-Name Tight Ends 2015|
|*Injured during game|
Of the NFL's 10 most targeted tight ends in 2015, Denver faced four of them in a total of six games (they faced Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs and Antonio Gates of the San Diego Chargers twice). Of that quartet, only Gronkowski and Kelce had above-average yardage games, with Kelce barely clearing the mark.
Only Gronkowski, Gary Barnidge of the Cleveland Browns and Gates scored, and Barnidge and Gates failed to accrue even 40 receiving yards in those games.
The Denver safeties were also quite adept in coverage this season. Per the grading system at Pro Football Focus, both Ward and Stewart ranked inside the top 25 at their position in that regard in 2015.
And it's vitally important that Ward and Stewart are on the field and at the top of their games in Super Bowl 50.
Yes, the Broncos will have Roby on the field more often than not. According to Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, the second-year nickelback was on the field for just under 57 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 2015. And just as he did against Gronkowski and the Pats, some of those snaps will be spent covering Olsen.
But even then one safety or the other will likely be helping. At least they should, even if it means leaving Harris and Aqib Talib on islands against Ginn and Corey Brown. Assistance from linebacker Brandon Marshall isn't likely, as he'll be in 007 mode with his sights squarely set on spying Newton.
If the safeties can't get it done on their own, get them help. It's better to get beat over the top by Ginn than to let Newton and Olsen connect over and over again.
The Panthers, for all their success in 2015, were a mediocre 24th in the NFL in passing during the regular season. Of their 3,589 passing yards, almost 31 percent were passes to Olsen.
Take him away, and the Panthers are a one-dimensional football team with no intermediate passing game to speak of.
Take him away, and all you have to worry about is the NFC's best run game. And the league's MVP.
What? No one said it was going to be easy.
But it will get a lot easier if the Broncos can shut Olsen down.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.