Five keys to a Carolina Panthers victory when the Denver Broncos have the ball:
Erase Demaryius Thomas
And I mean erase. Do not let Thomas get going.
Thomas has struggled with his hands this season, but a few early catches to build his confidence in the Super Bowl would be detrimental to Carolina.
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Josh Norman will likely be covering Thomas for most of the game, and Norman needs to play Sunday at an elite level. Norman had a rough outing against Julio Jones in Week 16, and Thomas is the closest he has faced to Jones since then.
Thomas hasn’t had more than 60 receiving yards in a playoff game in his past three postseason contests. That’s because Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and New England have made sure they didn’t get beaten by Thomas.
Carolina must do the same.
Shut down the run game
For more than three months, only one team has been able to hit a rushing benchmark of 100 yards or more that Carolina’s offense has met in 27 consecutive games.
The Broncos have had eight games where they didn’t reach the 100-yard plateau, and three of their four losses have come in those games.
C.J. Anderson is a good, not great, running back, and Carolina’s defensive tackles should be able to stuff the run in the middle with the linebackers getting to the edge and tackling.
The Broncos are a pass-heavy offense, but all NFL offenses are fueled by the running game opening up the passing game. Shutting down the run is what helped Carolina choke out Seattle and Arizona in January.
Be judicious with blitzing
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott blitzed Josh Norman against Seattle and Russell Wilson found the open man for a touchdown in the divisional round game.
That should have been a lesson learned. Smart quarterbacks will figure out your blitz no matter how well you disguise it, and Peyton Manning is perhaps the smartest of them all.
McDermott has shown a penchant for dialing up blitzes at the right time, and the Norman example is one of few you can point to that went against the Panthers.
Manning can eat defenses alive if he knows what’s coming. The Panthers can’t take their best corner (Norman) or best linebacker (Luke Kuechly) out of coverage and rush Manning. They’ll have to get it done with what they have up front.
“There is no doubt that the way the league is trending you’ve got to get pressure inside,” McDermott said. “The quarterbacks are getting the ball off so fast now that you’ve got to get penetration and affect the quarterback. Peyton Manning is no different this week. He gets the ball off, I think, the second fastest among all quarterbacks. So it’s important that you have some guys inside who can win.”
Manning knows his arm isn’t what it used to be, but the Panthers aren’t taking him lightly.
Norman told me last week that when watching film, he noticed Manning was throwing it over cornerbacks’ heads because they didn’t respect his arm.
He saw cornerbacks squatting, waiting to undercut a route and pick off a pass. Greediness leads to squatting, and Carolina’s defenses backs can’t be greedy.
Manning threw 17 interceptions in an injury-shortened season but hasn’t thrown any this postseason. Maybe he’s due, but don’t get caught waiting for one.
Make Peyton feel sacks
Watching the New England game I was struck by how Manning absorbed sacks.
He was sacked three times but somehow rolled into the sack. Yes, he’s a statue at quarterback, but after 18 years the man knows how not to get hit.
Carolina’s pass rushers need to make him feel the hits. No one’s saying to injure him, but make it count when you hit him.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan took a shot on the hip in Week 16 early in the game and it clearly affected him for the rest of the half.
Manning, 39, is the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl. He’s already said he will need a hip replacement. His body doesn’t work like it used to.
When you wrap him up, throw him to the ground. Put some weight into the sack. Do that and it might throw him off for long stretches of the game.