Digesting the Panthers

Happy Football Sunday, friends.  I want to run through some thoughts relating to today’s Broncos-Panthers game in Charlotte.  I watched the Carolina-Washington game from last week, and I came away feeling like the Panthers have a good amount of talent, certainly more than I'd thought.  They’re not a proficient team, though, and their execution comes and goes.

1.   I think this is a great test for the Broncos, because it’s a second consecutive early road game in the Eastern time zone, and because with the talent the Panthers have, they’re definitely capable of winning the game. 

I frequently talk about proficiency, and I believe that the Broncos are becoming a proficient team, one which expects to execute consistently.  Proficient teams show up at 1pm in downtown Charlotte and handle their business against less proficient teams.  In so doing, they ensure that they’ll win their division, and they stay in the mix for byes and homefield advantage in the playoffs.  This is what the Patriots and Colts did throughout the 2000s, and I’ll be looking for Peyton Manning to preside over a businesslike victory today.

2.  I was critical of Cam Newton’s bizarre news conferences a couple weeks ago, and I wondered aloud whether Nolan Nawrocki may have been right in his assessment of Newton’s character.  The fact is, though, he’s tremendously talented.  If you let Newton play his game, he’s going to be really tough to stop.

I think that Newton’s accuracy still isn’t the greatest, particularly when he feels pressure.  His footwork tends to go awry, and that leads him to sail some passes, and ground some others.  Newton obviously has excellent talent in propelling a football through the air, but he’s not a natural passer; he’s a guy who’s learned to throw accurately through concentrating on getting his footwork right. 

That’s not a criticism of him, and I think it’s true of most QBs.  What I’m saying is that if the Broncos can take away Newton’s first read, and get some pressure, they can have a lot of success against his dropback passing game.

3.  I don’t find anybody in the Panthers receiving corps to be threatening, other than Steve Smith.  Brandon LaFell is just a guy, and Greg Olson is a lot of sizzle, and not much steak.  The third-leading WR is former Raider Louis Murphy, who can really only run a 9 route, going back to his days as a Florida Gator.  I think that the Broncos can feel confident in lining up man-to-man all day, and handling the Panthers passing game. 

One caveat is that you have to spy Newton if you want to play man coverage, though, and I think that’s a job for Wesley Woodyard.  When you play zone, underneath defenders are watching the QB by virtue of their assignments.  It will be interesting to see how the Broncos account for the QB run.

4.  The Panthers pay a lot of money for RBs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert, and don’t use them very much, or very well.  If I were running their offense, those three guys would be the focal point of the whole thing, and whenever I watch the Panthers, I feel like they’re an afterthought.

Carolina does run some triple option stuff, and a good deal of zone read, and they do like to try to attack the edges of the defense.  I think the Broncos can help themselves contain the outside run by using Robert Ayers as the open-side DE more often than usual, especially in run situations.  Doing so will help them assure that both edges are set, and allow them to keep Elvis Dumervil rested to be most effective on third-and-long.

5.  I was impressed with the Panthers front four, particularly DEs Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy.  Johnson has been a known commodity, but Hardy is really coming on, mostly playing against RTs.  I think that Ryan Clady will largely shut down Johnson as a pass rusher, but that Hardy represents some danger against Orlando Franklin.  Look for the Broncos to be very cognizant of him in their protection schemes today.

The two primary inside guys, Ron Edwards and Dwan Edwards (no relation), are solid run-stuffers, and Dwan has five sacks this season, which is just short of the 5.5 that he had previously had over 83 career games before this season.  Ron is limited as a pass rusher.

6.  The LB corps for the Panthers looks like a strength on paper, but I’m not really feeling what I’ve seen on tape.  Rookie MLB Luke Kuechly is clearly going to be good, but he takes some bad angles, and overruns some tackles.  WLB Thomas Davis isn’t as fast as he used to be, coming off multiple ACL reconstructions, and I think he’s particularly exploitable in coverage.  SLB James Anderson is highly-paid, but he’s just a guy. 

7.  Retired for John Elway (TYJE)

8.  The Panthers secondary isn’t good, and if you can protect your passer, unlike the Redskins, you can really pick on these guys.  The safeties are Randall Godfrey and Haruki Nakamura, and the best thing you could say about either guy, is that they’re almost good enough in most areas.  Of course, that means they’re not quite good enough in any area, if you’re one of those half-empty people.

The starting CBs are Captain Munnerlyn and rookie fifth-round pick Josh Norman.  Those guys can’t handle Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, and I expect this to be a key matchup advantage for the Broncos.

9.  Finally, I wanted to weigh in on Derek Wolfe, since he seems to be taking some hits lately.  Pro Football Focus ranks Wolfe poorly, and I generally respect their work, but I think they’re getting it wrong.  The reason is that Wolfe is being asked to do unique things, and that makes it hard to measure him against other players in the NFL.

Nominally, the Broncos run a 4-3 defense, but the reason I get irritated with media types is that they tend not to realize that there are many different types of 4-3.  The Broncos are actually running a hybrid front, and in my opinion, it plays a lot like a 3-4.  The key guys to making that possible are Wolfe and Von Miller.

Wolfe plays DE in base personnel, and he’s joined by two DT types, let’s say Justin Bannan and Kevin Vickerson.  Those three guys total up to about 950 pounds of beef inside, and a lot of the time, they’re being asked to two-gap.  Remember, Vickerson and Bannan have played a lot of two-gap stuff in odd fronts, so they’re comfortable with that.  Wolfe was more of a one-gap guy coming out of college, but the Broncos saw him as a versatile, high-effort player, and he’s proven to be that.

Miller is a brilliant player, obviously, and Elvis Dumervil is the hybrid guy, who plays with his hand on the ground, but is often tasked with setting the edge in the run game, rather than taking the C gap, like many DEs are.  He’s being used a lot like the Ravens use Terrell Suggs, and it’s been very good for him.

Wolfe makes this all possible by anchoring in the run game, and holding the point of attack.  As Dumervil said a couple weeks ago, he does more dirty work than anybody.  As an added bonus, he’s good as an interior pass rusher in sub packages, and I think he’s going to end up with seven or eight sacks in his rookie year.

PFF’s low ranking of Wolfe is driven by the uniqueness of his assignment, and they have him 61st out of 63 “4-3 DEs.”  The only other defensive front schemes in the NFL that I consider to be comparable to what the Broncos are doing are run by Seattle and Miami.  Wolfe’s counterparts on those teams, as closed-side DEs, are Red Bryant and Jared Odrick.  Bryant is ranked 56th, and Odrick is 59th; I can tell you, the eye test says they both (like Wolfe) are much better players than that. 

Miami is 3rd, Seattle is 11th, and Denver is 12th against the run.  In terms of scoring defense, which is most important, Seattle is 3rd, Miami is 6th, and the Broncos are 13th.  PFF would have you believe that those defenses are held back by their closed-side DEs, and I submit that that’s false.  In fact, those guys doing the dirty work are key to the success that all three defenses are having.

That’s what I have for today friends.  Let’s hope that the Broncos are up to the challenge, and can handle business today.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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