By Rich Kurtzman
Through their first eight games, the Broncos have faced a bevy of high-powered passing offenses. Of course, that’s the trend of the NFL in the 21st century, with the game being tilted in favor of the teams that pass proficiently. Denver’s defense has developed into a dominant unit as of late, but this week will be much different. That’s because Denver’s opponent this weekend, Carolina, is old-school in their approach.
The Panthers run the rock with reckless abandon, be it with a traditional tailback or with their quarterback, bruising opponents while imposing their physical will.
In Carolina, the offense begins with Cam Newton. The second-year quarterback not only passes the ball—sometimes very well—but he also easily leads the team in rushing. Newton is a new generation’s “Superman”, at 6’5” 245-pounds, he’s a load to try to take down, able to run over wannabe tacklers on a whim. He’s also quick as lightning, a smooth runner, gaining 347 yards and four touchdowns on the season. Newton is able to drop back and take off when he needs to, or run it in the option offense, which the Panthers call at times.
When Newton’s not running, DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart are. Williams is in his seventh year, running as strong as ever. Stewart is still skilled as well, battling through injuries this season and continuing to run tough. Together, they’ve run for 482 yards and three touchdowns—all by Williams—and are each vital pieces to the Panthers’ seventh-best rushing offense.
What it means for the Broncos’ defense is differences on how they have to play up front and in the box. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil are usually pass-rushing specialists, and while they will still be asked push their way up field to rush Newton when he looks to pass, they will also have to make sure and set the edge when Carolina undoubtedly runs the rock. It means linebacker Wesley Woodyard will have to key in on the run much more too, and interior linemen Derek Wolfe and the many others that rotate in will need to play disciplined in their assignments.
The Panthers may be a predominantly running team, but they do pass the ball too, the third-least of any team in the NFL to be exact. Newton lit up the sky as a rookie last season, and although he’s dropped off from a production standpoint this year, he’s still an effective passer. He’s thrown for 1,900 yards and six touchdowns compared to eight interceptions, connecting most often with Steve Smith. Smith is still a stellar receiver, small and speedy, reeling in 38 footballs for a team-leading 630 yards and one score. Tight end Greg Olson is second with 395 yards, while youngster Brandon LaFell leads the team with two receiving touchdowns.
On defense, the Panthers have a host of playmakers. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly leads with 78 tackles, while starting cornerbacks Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn have combined for 11 passes defended and two interceptions. Right defensive end Charles Johnson leads with 7.5 sacks, and Carolina also has Greg Hardy with 6.5 and Dwan Edwards with five sacks all on their defensive line. Simply, the Panthers know how to get after the quarterback and they understand how to tackle with discipline. Earning easy yards won’t be a possibility for the Broncos this week; they’ll have to fight for every inch. But Denver should be up to the task on the road again this Sunday.
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Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Find more of Rich’s Denver Broncos pieces on Examiner.com.