Last Thursday, just seven months after facing off in Super Bowl 50, the Panthers and Broncos met on the field again. The result was the same-a Broncos victory- but the score was much closer.
The Broncos pitched a near defensive shutout in the Super Bowl, defeating the Panthers 24-10. On Thursday, the margin was much as slim as could be. The Broncos won by a mere one point after Panthers Kicker Graham Gano missed what would have been a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. The score: 21-20.
Behind these near identical score were near identical stats as well.
Due to the strength of the opposing defenses, both teams were held to similarly low numbers in the air. The Panthers lead with only 194 passing yards with the Broncos slightly behind at 176.
The breakdown behind these yards is where things differ.
The Panthers appeared extremely reliant on just two receivers when passing the ball. The standard deviation between the Panthers top-3 receivers was 32.3, with WR Kelvin Benjamin accounting for just under half of the his team’s passing yards. TE Greg Olsen was a close second at nearly 40%. In other words, just two players accounted for 85% of the Panthers passing yards.
The Broncos were much more even-handed when passing the ball. The top-3 receivers accounted for 49, 48, and 47 yards, respectively. That group has a standard deviation of only one yard.Talk about uniformity.
We’ll have to wait and see how both of these breakdowns change when pitted against less-superior defenses.
Rushing yards were even closer between the Panthers and Broncos. The Panthers posted 157 total yards on the ground while the Broncos posted 148.
Just as with passing yards, the rushing yard breakdowns are where things get interesting.
On the ground, the team variations flip. Panthers runners were much more comparable. However, not all runners were really runners. Cam Newton is known for and extremely capable of running the ball. He accounted for the second most yards on the ground, posting 54 total yards. That’s far more than the team’s second RB Mike Tolbert, who only had 6 yards on 2 carries.
Despite the rushing breakdown, the Panthers need to get the ball to their actual RBs and only give it to Cam when strategically advantageous. Cam was hit 17 times on Thursday. Maybe save the beating for less critical players.
In contrast to their even passing distribution, the Broncos relied almost exclusively on CJ Anderson to run the ball. Andy Janovich is technically their next leading rusher, but all of his yards came on one carry.
How will future opponents react to these breakdowns defensively? Until other receivers present more of a threat, look for Benjamin and Olsen to receive special attention.
Planning for the Broncos passing game will be tougher. With three receivers equally capable of pulling their weight, defenses will have to react quickly each play.
On the ground, opposing defenses would do well to put a spy on Newton. Newton is a master of the delayed read, so defenses will have to watch both him and the RB. He’ll also receive plenty of designated runs and will not hesitate to take off when nothing’s open in the pocket.
The Broncos will receive the opposite treatment. If defenses can plug the line and shut down Anderson, the Broncos’ running game will falter.
Will other Panthers WR’s step up to the plate? Will another Broncos RB compete with Anderson for carries? Keep checking in throughout the season to find out.
Sports Analytics and Business at Indiana University
Stats courtesy of ESPN and the NFL
Image courtesy of the Denver Post