During the 2015 regular season, the Broncos and Panthers allowed the NFL’s fewest and second-fewest yards per play, respectively, and finished 1-2 defensively in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) ratings. It’s only the eighth time the top two DVOA defenses1 have met in a Super Bowl, and the average defensive index of the teams involved ranks third all-time, trailing only Super Bowls XIV and IV. Everyone is obsessing over the study in contrasts at quarterback — Cam Newton vs. Peyton Manning — but it’s the two defenses that should be taking center stage in the lead-up to Sunday, because by just about any measure, this is one of the best defensive matchups in Super Bowl history.
Running the ball against the Broncos’ defense is like running into a brick wall erected around another, thicker brick wall. It had the league’s fourth-best defensive DVOA against rushing plays during the regular season and was particularly fearsome up the middle, allowing the league’s fourth-fewest expected points per rush between the tackles. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s player grades, defensive end Derek Wolfe was the eighth-best interior run defender in the NFL; Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall also ranked among the top 11 run defenders at linebacker, with Von Miller ranking ninth against the run among edge rushers. If the Broncos have a weakness against the run, it’s in short-yardage situations — they allowed the league’s second-highest power success rate2 — but they offset that with one of the league’s highest rates of stuffing runners behind the line of scrimmage, and they almost never allowed long runs. Only 7.4 percent of carries against the Broncos went for more than 10 yards, the third-lowest rate in the league.
And Denver’s ability to stop the run is by far the weaker aspect of this defense. According to DVOA,3 the 2015 Broncos’ pass D ranks as the 11th-best of the Super Bowl era after blowing away the competition this season. The Panthers’ DVOA against the pass ranked second in the league but was about two-thirds of a standard deviation worse than Denver’s.
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What makes the Broncos so great at defending the pass? For one thing, they led the league in adjusted sack rate, with coordinator Wade Phillips dialing up five or more pass-rushers on 42 percent of opposing pass plays, fourth-most in football. Those plays are statistically graded as blitzes, but in a Denver 3-4 alignment featuring some of the game’s top pass-rushing linebackers, the lines between a blitz and a D-line that simply creates pressure on its own start to blur. According to PFF, Miller was the top pass-rushing edge defender in the game, and his partner on the opposite side, DeMarcus Ware, ranked sixth. Meanwhile, Wolfe and Malik Jackson also finished among the top 11 pass-rushing interior linemen. And when the Broncos do need to blitz from unusual places, safety T.J. Ward can create havoc; he tied for sixth among DBs with a pair of sacks this season.
But the front four is only part of the equation — a blitz-heavy scheme falls apart quickly without the ability to cover receivers. This Denver D doesn’t necessarily rely on its secondary as ball hawks; Aqib Talib’s modest total of three interceptions led the roster, and the team’s interception rate was merely average. Instead, all of the Broncos’ primary defensive backs (Talib, Ward, Chris Harris Jr., Darian Stewart and Bradley Roby) and linebackers (Trevathan and Marshall) ranked among the upper quartile at their positions in PFF’s coverage grades, sticking to receivers so effectively that only St. Louis allowed fewer air yards per completion. (“Grading” players is often a fool’s errand, since you can never be sure about coverages and assignments, but when pretty much the entire secondary grades out in the upper crust, those problems are minimized.) And no team allowed fewer overall passing yards per attempt or yards per completion than the Broncos did.
For all the lofty achievement and outright dominance by the Denver squad, the Panthers’ defense might actually have the edge in star power: Not only will it have arguably the best player on the field Sunday in LB Luke Kuechly, but Carolina’s D also outearned Denver’s in first-team All-Pro selections (3 to 1) and tied it for Pro Bowl nods (4 apiece).
It’s indicative of the way these defenses stack up: Carolina’s top defensive players — Kuechly, CB Josh Norman, LB Thomas Davis (playing Sunday with “a plate and probably around 11 or 12 screws” in his arm, which he broke during the NFC championship), DT Kawann Short — can hold their own with anybody on Denver’s roster. But the lesser Panthers defenders aren’t quite as good, which makes Carolina’s statistical profile sort of “Broncos Lite.” Their strengths are similar, but the Panthers are slightly inferior to Denver whether they’re defending the pass or the run.
Stylistically, however, the Panthers do operate differently in some important ways. At the most elemental level, they run a 4-3 scheme that relies less on creative blitz packages and pressure from the edges, instead using Short to generate a pass rush from the middle of the defense, and fellow DT Star Lotulelei to occupy blockers and eat up space. The end result was fewer sacks and less pressure overall, but that only makes Carolina’s performance in coverage even more impressive. Despite giving opposing passers the league’s sixth-most seconds in the pocket per drop-back, the Panthers allowed the 11th-fewest air yards per attempt and seventh-lowest completion percentage.
It all starts with Norman, who has few peers when it comes to blanketing receivers. Alongside him, the Carolina secondary is littered with such solid cover DBs as Kurt Coleman, Roman Harper, Cortland Finnegan and Tre Boston, all of whom PFF rated among the top half of their respective positions in terms of pass coverage. This depth proved important because Carolina used five or more defensive backs on 463 pass plays this season (26 percent more than the NFL average), more than any other team despite a banged-up secondary that suffered a number of key losses.
Speaking of which: The only glaring hole in the DB corps might be Robert McClain, whom PFF rated as one of the worst cover corners in football since signing with Carolina at midseason after a rash of injuries befell the team. But coverage ratings for individual players often don’t tell the whole story, and the rest of Carolina’s roster rates well in pass coverage — Kuechly was graded by PFF as the game’s best cover LB. The all-around cover skills of Carolina’s entire D helped them yield the league’s second-lowest rates of yards per attempt and yards after the catch.
Against the rush, Carolina profiled a lot like Denver: It was poor at stopping runners in power situations (worst in the league, in fact), but it also stuffed a lot of runs behind the line of scrimmage. The biggest difference is that, unlike the Broncos, the Panthers did yield some long runs; they ranked 15th at preventing what Football Outsiders calls “open field” yards — i.e., rushing gains starting more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage — per carry (Denver ranked second). That’s one reason why this is a good run defense but not a great one.
All told, this is the 15th-most evenly matched defensive matchup in Super Bowl history according to DVOA. And the quality of offensive competition each defense will face ought to help level the playing field even more. Denver’s historically great D is facing a very good Carolina offense led by the suddenly amazing Newton at QB; Carolina’s great-but-not-historically-so defense is facing one of the worst offenses to take the field in a Super Bowl — particularly when it comes to passing.
The Super Bowl is all about pomp and spectacle, razzle and dazzle, offensive fireworks and star quarterbacks booking FastPass times at the tea cups. Sometimes that leaves little room for an appreciation of subtler things, like defense. But in this case, all eyes should be on that rougher side of the football — it will be a long time before you see another defensive clash of this caliber on Super Bowl Sunday.
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