SAN FRANCISCO – Lost in all of the discussion about Cam Newton’s electrifying talent and Peyton Manning’s last rodeo is the fact Super Bowl 50 offers about as compelling a matchup of dominant defenses as you’ll find in a championship game.
In many ways, it’s a referendum on a long-standing football cliché that has become mostly forgotten in the era of quarterback dominance.
“Defenses win championships,” Denver Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby said. “The top two defenses are in it.”
Actually, the NFL’s top regular-season defense, Denver’s, is in it. But the Carolina Panthers aren’t that far behind at No. 6. The Broncos also have the league’s best pass defense and are third against the run. The Panthers are fourth against the run, 11th against the pass.
But Carolina does lead the NFL in one of the most important categories of all with 39 takeaways. They added nine in the playoffs, seven of which came in their humiliation of the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.
Conventional wisdom says the Broncos’ defense is in for a far more difficult task Sunday than the Panthers’ D. Who would argue with that?
Newton’s ridiculous speed/power combo as a runner, as well as his ability to throw darts, have been the recipe for numerous defensive nightmares. Meanwhile, the Panthers’ defense can expect to have a fairly stationary target in the 39-year-old Manning, who will heave passes that often flutter through the air and beg to be intercepted.
The premise makes perfect sense … if you don’t play defense for the Broncos.
“It’s offensive,” strong safety T.J. Ward said with a laugh. “We feel offended when offenses think they’re going to come in and do something that other offenses weren’t able to do.”
“I just think, right now, we’re a one-of-a-kind defense,” said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris. “We have a defense that has elite players on each level. You have great D-linemen, great linebackers and a great secondary. I don’t know if (the Panthers have) faced a team that has elite players at each level.”
He said that knowing full well the Panthers beat the Seattle Seahawks, who had the NFL’s No. 2-ranked defense (first against the run and second against the pass), in the divisional round of the postseason. At times, Carolina’s offense made the Seahawks’ D look downright incompetent.
But there’s reason to think moving the ball will be more of a challenge for Newton and the NFL’s second-ranked rushing attack this time. The Broncos do have some exceptional talent up front, beginning with veteran outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. He and fellow outside linebacker Von Miller form as daunting a pass-rushing duo as any in the game. Their relentless pounding of Tom Brady – which included 2½ sacks by Miller – went a long way toward allowing the Broncos to beat the defending-Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the AFC title game.
Denver has a formidable and fast defensive line in ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson and nose tackle Sylvester Williams. It has speedy inside linebackers in Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, who should make it difficult for the Panthers to run with much authority. Ward, Harris, Roby, cornerback Aqib Talib and free safety Darian Stewart form arguably the best secondary in the league that provides the same sure tackling found throughout the Bronco defense.
And there is the scheming of coordinator Wade Phillips, who runs a blitz-oriented, man-cover scheme that maximizes the skills of his players. He believes in a simple, straightforward approach that the players find easy to understand and are able to execute aggressively. Player input is encouraged and a major part of what happens during games.
Said Ward, “I think we prepare like no one else. When we’re not in the room together, I know we’re all at home on the iPads, because we come in (ready) before we’ve even got the game plan in. We tell (the coaches) what we think we should do or what packages we’re going to run. We always seem like we’ve got a leg up.”
“There is not a weakness on that defense,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “They can cover, they can get to the ball, they diagnose well. There are a lot of backups on that team that could easily be starting on other teams in this league.”
The Panthers don’t have nearly the amount of star power on their defense as Denver does, but they do have four of the NFL’s best at their respective positions in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, outside linebacker Thomas Davis, tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Josh Norman. Davis is hoping to play in the Super Bowl despite undergoing surgery to repair a broken arm he suffered in the NFC Championship Game.
His drive is typical of the attitude that can be found throughout the unit, which has a core of gritty castoffs such as end Jared Allen, 32-year-old cornerback Cortland Finnegan (lured out of semi-retirement right after Thanksgiving when a knee injury ended Charles Tillman’s season), free safety Kurt Coleman and strong safety Roman Harper, who won a Super Bowl with New Orleans.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott stresses discipline, fundamental soundness, accountability, all-out effort, and punishing hits. He calls Harper his “enforcer,” comparing him to the Hansen Brothers from the movie “Slapshot.” “Whenever we needed to do something, he comes out like the twins used to come off the bench and go in and lay the wood then go right back into the penalty box,” McDermott said. “He’s kind of that to us.”
“We’re physical,” tackle Star Lotulelei said. “We’re willing to line up and hit you in the mouth. There are really no secrets to our defense.”
Just one motto: Trust.
“We’re not asked to do anything other than what our job states,” Coleman said. “If I’m in the deep post, I’m not going to try and snag something across the middle. I’m going to stay in the deep post because I know my corners are trusting me that I’m going to be in the deep post, so if anything comes across deep, I’m going to be there to help make a play for the ball.
“Vice versa on the front four. If Jared Allen’s in a five-technique, a six-technique, and he has a gap that he has to control, he’s going to control that gap because he knows that I’m or the linebacker’s going to be filling the other gaps. So if he tries to get out of his gap, that puts us at a liability. I think it’s just a trust that we have amongst each other, with the coaches and the players all alike, that we’re going to do our job and nothing more than that.”
That the Panthers led the NFL in takeaways and have continued the trend in the postseason is hardly an accident. McDermott devotes each Thursday of the practice week to forcing turnovers.
“And when a ball goes to the ground in practice, guys are running around to pick it up,” Kuechly said. “It has almost turned into a competition a little bit to see who can force the most turnovers, and Coach McDermott does a great job at allowing us to play fast and aggressive and that has something to do with it.
“We have guys that like getting around the ball and like getting their hands on the football to force turnovers. We know how much that affects our offense and put them in good positions, so it’s a big emphasis on what we do. We stress it a lot, we track it a lot, and it makes football more fun when you can get the ball out.”
It’s also a big part of what makes Super Bowl 50 what it is once you get beyond all of the quarterback talk: A testament to great defense.