Clutch Encounters: CAR-DEN

Clutch Encounters: CAR-DEN
Clutch Encounters: CAR-DEN
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

After waiting seven long months for the 2016 season to begin, we were treated to an entertaining game you could have pulled right out of Denver's 2015 film vault. There were three early turnovers, all coming inside the Carolina 30. The Broncos had three comeback wins from a double-digit deficit in 2015, and trailed 17-7 at halftime here. Before you knew it, C.J. Anderson was breaking long runs, the defense made a highlight-worthy interception, and Denver had rallied back to take the lead. Even when it looked like defeat was imminent, the defense stood tall and the Broncos caught a break on a missed field goal with four seconds left in the 21-20 win.

What a season opener, but it could have fit anywhere in Denver's 2015 Super Bowl journey. Last year the Broncos led the NFL with six fourth-quarter comebacks and/or game-winning drives in the regular season before adding a seventh in the playoffs against Pittsburgh. Historically, teams with six such wins in a season win 66.7 percent of their game-winning drive opportunities, but only 40.0 percent in the following season.

But these Broncos are 1-0, and even with the unremarkable Trevor Siemian at quarterback, the script is all too familiar. Carolina would have to agree. Much like in Super Bowl 50, the turning point was Denver's edge pressure getting to Cam Newton. While there was no fumble this time, a sack by DeMarcus Ware and hit to the helmet from nemesis Von Miller halfway through the third quarter left Newton in pain. Newton started the second half 1-for-8 in success rate as the Broncos regained control of the game. This is the first time since Week 11 of the 2012 season against Tampa Bay that Carolina lost after leading by double digits in the fourth quarter.

Denver's Comeback: Ride the Siemian?

Some of the praise for Siemian's first start has been borderline comical, but it really is a case of "he wasn't as horrible as we expected." C.J. Anderson was the true star of the night with 139 yards from scrimmage, including a 25-yard touchdown on a screen pass to start the fourth quarter. That cut the deficit to 17-14, then Denver just happened to get one of those tipped balls that turns into an interception at the most opportune of moments. Chris Harris made the play, just getting his elbows under the ball before it touched the ground for an incompletion.

Only 23 yards away from the lead, Siemian went back to flirting with disaster. His pass for Demaryius Thomas could have been thrown quicker to avoid leading him into a hit, though Thomas still had it in his hands here. The ball dangerously popped into the air, and in the way Denver gets some crazy turnovers, you have to wonder if this is a Carolina pick if that No. 24 in the picture was still cornerback Josh Norman instead of rookie James Bradberry.

Siemian's next pass was a minus-1 ALEX throw on third down, but a bad spot by the officials led to some bad game management by Carolina head coach Ron Rivera. The timeout usages were poor all night in this one, but calling a timeout to debate challenging a play is lunacy. You could lose two timeouts if the challenge fails in that case. Just throw the red flag right away if you are thinking about it instead of using a timeout. This would come back to haunt the Panthers.

Gary Kubiak had a fairly easy decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the 2-yard line. The goal is to win the game, not tie it. There may be a certain time where the field goal is the right call, but not with 10:46 left. Anderson converted and eventually scored the touchdown after Siemian had another pass nearly tipped and intercepted on an athletic play by Kony Ealy. Siemian had Virgil Green completely wide open in the end zone off a play-action fake and missed the throw. There are definitely some growing pains here with Siemian. The rest of his night included a pretty bad four-minute offense attempt where he missed a throw and took another sack. Denver survived a tough Carolina trip with its new quarterback, but things will have to get better here.

Carolina's Failed Comeback: That Denver Pass Rush

Trailing for the first time in the game, Newton finally made some plays in the half, but Carolina's drive stalled in the red zone. With 4:25 left and a fourth-and-5, it is hard to fault Rivera for kicking the 36-yard field goal. You have to expect to get the ball back in that situation, and it would only be a 1-point game.

Sure enough, Carolina forced the three-and-out drive, and had great field position at its own 40 with 3:06 left. Even just 25 yards gives the kicker a reasonable shot at a go-ahead field goal. Instead, the Panthers made this drive look as hard as pulling teeth. A false start and sack was not a good way to begin things. Von Miler had a quiet night with a lot of attention paid to him, but game on the line, he may have triggered some PTSD for Mike Remmers with a speed move for a sack to bring up fourth-and-21 at the two-minute warning. Newton's pass fell incomplete, but a penalty on Chris Harris for illegal use of hands to the face gave Carolina an automatic first down. The contact happened very briefly, but while there is no definitive proof yet, it sure looks possible that Kelvin Benjamin's left hand was in Harris' face at the same time. Either call it on both or leave it alone.

UPDATE:Straight from the horse's mouth, Chris Harris on the play:

Carolina's very inefficient drive continued, and as hard as it sounds to believe, the Panthers used their final timeout with the clock already stopped from an incompletion because they failed to line up in time for third-and-5. It was that kind of night. It was also a rough one for Newton with Denver defenders teeing off on him several times. With 42 seconds left, Newton escaped pressure, but took another late helmet-to-helmet shot from Darian Stewart while his pass was flagged for intentional grounding. Those fouls actually offset, giving a big break to Denver. Here is the big hit.

There are problems for a 5-foot-11 safety trying to hit a 6-foot-5 quarterback that drops his head right before contact. Stewart may have intentionally been headhunting, and will likely draw a nice fine, but these hits are happening at high speeds. The fines do not deter players from future big hits, and the damage was still done to Newton, who did not leave the game for concussion testing even though backup quarterback Derek Anderson was briefly shown warming up on the sideline. The NFL still has some explaining to do here. No player should be too much of a star to avoid getting checked out.

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The absence of timeouts limited what plays the Panthers could run, but two more completions set up a reasonable 50-yard field goal for Graham Gano. Kubiak tried icing the kicker, but whether or not that had any impact, Gano did indeed miss the field goal wide left with four seconds left to secure another tight Denver win. This is the fourth time in his career that Gano missed a probable game-winning field goal in a game his team lost. While not an easy kick, it is one he is expected to make in that situation. It is just hard to believe that the Panthers needed nearly three full minutes to move the ball a whopping 28 yards. The offense should have been able to get closer with all of that time.

Credit the Denver pass rush for creating a lot of wasted time for Carolina. Since 2012, the Broncos are 30-5 (.857) when holding a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime. In the five losses, the game-winning drives only traveled a combined 71 yards as the defense was usually put on short fields because of mistakes on offense or special teams. In the 30 wins, Denver came away with 19 turnovers, the most in the league in this situation over that time. Save for that one moment involving Rahim Moore and Jacoby Jones, this defense closes in ridiculous fashion, but last night was the first time it needed the other team to miss a field goal at the end to get the win.

Fourth-Quarter Comeback Attempts (Down 1-8 PTS) vs. Denver Broncos, 2012-2015
Date Opp. Quarterback Ahead Final Time Drive Result
9/9/2012 PIT B.Roethlisberger 25-19 W 31-19 3:00 T.Porter pick-six w/1:58 left
10/15/2012 at SD P.Rivers 28-24 W 35-24 3:52 C.Harris pick-six w/2:05 left
11/4/2012 at CIN A.Dalton 24-20 W 31-20 11:42 C.Bailey INT w/8:38 left; offense added TD
11/18/2012 SD P.Rivers 30-23 W 30-23 0:23 E.Dumervil sacks Rivers to end game
11/25/2012 at KC B.Quinn 17-9 W 17-9 0:11 D.Bruton INT w/0:00 left
1/12/2013 BAL J.Flacco 35-28 L 38-35 OT 1:09 70-yd TD pass to J.Jones w/0:31 left; lose in OT
9/15/2013 at NYG E.Manning 24-16 W 41-23 15:25 C.Harris INT w/14:53 left
10/6/2013 at DAL T.Romo 38-33 W 51-48 15:02 DAL scores 15 4Q points, but D.Trevathan INT w/1:57 left
10/27/2013 WAS R.Griffin 28-21 W 45-21 14:18 V.Miller strip-sack w/13:15 left
11/10/2013 at SD P.Rivers 28-20 W 28-20 6:43 Incomplete on 3rd-and-16 w/3:37 left
11/24/2013 at NE T.Brady 24-21 L 34-31 OT 14:32 J.Edelman go-ahead TD rec. w/13:13 left; lose in OT (muffed punt)
12/1/2013 at KC A.Smith 35-28 W 35-28 3:32 Incomplete on 4th-and-4 at DEN 13 w/1:46 left
12/22/2013 at HOU M.Schaub 16-13 W 37-13 15:21 M.Adams INT w/14:11 left; offense added TD
9/7/2014 IND A.Luck 31-24 W 31-24 2:58 Incomplete on 4th-and-6 at DEN 39 w/1:51 left
9/14/2014 KC A.Smith 24-17 W 24-17 3:20 Incomplete on 4th-and-2 at DEN 2 w/0:15 left
10/5/2014 ARI L.Thomas 27-20 W 41-20 13:48 Three-and-out w/12:20 left
10/12/2014 at NYJ G.Smith 24-17 W 31-17 0:56 A.Talib pick-six w/0:15 left
11/23/2014 MIA R.Tannehill 32-28 W 39-36 5:01 T.Ward INT w/3:30 left; offense added TD
12/22/2014 at CIN A.Dalton 29-28 L 37-28 9:43 M.Nugent 23-yd GW FG w/7:49 left (drive start: DEN 12)
Date Opp. Quarterback Ahead Final Time Drive Result
9/13/2015 BAL J.Flacco 19-13 W 19-13 2:55 D.Stewart INT in end zone w/0:28 left
9/17/2015 at KC A.Smith 31-24 W 31-24 0:27 Game-winning fumble return TD; sacked Smith to end game
9/27/2015 at DET M.Stafford 17-12 W 24-12 7:50 D.Bruton INT w/3:37 left; offense added TD
10/4/2015 MIN T.Bridgewater 23-20 W 23-20 1:51 T.Ward strip-sack w/0:29 left
10/11/2015 at OAK D.Carr 9-7 W 16-7 10:58 C.Harris pick-six w/6:53 left
10/18/2015 at CLE J.McCown 23-20 W 26-23 OT 4:51 CLE tying FG; McCown is picked in 4Q, CLE 3-and-out in OT
11/22/2015 at CHI J.Cutler 17-9 W 17-15 1:49 CHI gets TD, but tying 2PC run fails w/0:24 left
11/29/2015 NE T.Brady 24-21 W 30-24 OT 1:09 NE tying FG w/0:00 left; NE 3-and-out in OT
12/13/2015 OAK D.Carr 12-9 L 15-12 14:42 D.Carr go-ahead 16-yd TD pass to M.Rivera w/14:26 left
12/20/2015 at PIT B.Roethlisberger 27-20 L 34-27 14:51 9-yd TD pass to M.Wheaton w/12:34 left; PIT's GWD is 37 yds
12/28/2015 CIN A.McCarron 17-14 W 20-17 OT 11:17 46-yd tying FG drive w/6:46 left; McCarron fumble in OT
1/3/2016 SD P.Rivers 27-20 W 27-20 4:43 Incomplete on 4th-and-6 at DEN 40 w/1:40 left
1/17/2016 PIT B.Roethlisberger 20-13 W 23-16 3:00 D.Ware sack of Roethlisberger on 4th-and-5 w/1:49 left
1/24/2016 NE T.Brady 20-12 W 20-18 1:52 B.Roby intercepts Brady's 2PC pass w/0:12 left
2/7/2016 CAR C.Newton 16-10 W 24-10 4:51 V.Miller strip-sack w/4:04 left
9/8/2016 CAR C.Newton 21-20 W 21-20 3:06 G.Gano wide left on 50-yd FG w/0:04 left
Note: not every drive is listed for each game

Still, a win is a win, and this Denver defense led by Miller tends to clinch a lot of those. We'll see how much longer the defense can keep forcing big turnovers and making the critical stops while the offense tries to find its way. Carolina can at least take comfort that it probably won't see Denver again until the 2020 regular season.


10 comments, Last at 11 Sep 2016, 6:52pm

1 Re: Clutch Encounters: CAR-DEN

As a Denver fan, I'm trying to sort out my feelings on the various hits on Cam. The one Scott picked to show here clearly shows Cam dropping his helmet at the last second; it's not clear to me how Stewart is supposed to make that hit without helmet contact.

I guess they're going to pay a bunch of fines for these hits.

I'm trying to decide if the blown call on the Harris/Benjamin penalty offsets the blown calls on the helmet to helmet hits. It does seem like the calls went more in Denver's favor this time around, though that Harris/Benjamin call being correct may have led to the game just ending. Situationally it was a particularly big moment.

4 Re: Clutch Encounters: CAR-DEN

Stewart's tackling form is hideous. He lowers his head and launches. I hope for his sake that a fine deters him from doing that or he's going to wind up injuring himself. Eyes up and see what you're hitting! I usually have sympathy for defensive players trying to follow the safety guidelines (I particularly loathe "defenseless receiver" penalties where the defender hits shoulder to torso because often breaking up the pass is the only way to defend it), but not in this instance. Nothing prevented Stewart from making a proper form tackle. He chose not to in order to deliver a big hit.

5 Re: Clutch Encounters: CAR-DEN

It's really simple. You don't lead with your head. If you don't lead with your head it's impossible for it to be helmet-to-helmet. It's the defensive players duty to not use his head as a battering ram, not the offensive players duty to ensure he doesn't flunch or try and protect himself putting his head in the way of the launched missle coming at him.

These were egregious fouls. Shocked only one was called. There were also at least two other incidents that usually result in roughing the passer. In one, Newton was smacked in the head with a hand. That is nearly always called as contact to the QB's head. Another was a less egregious helmet-to-helmet hit. Both are nearly always called.

But, hey, Cam is a big guy so he needs no protection right? I mean, who cares if we end up watching Derek Anderson playing in the league's marquee matchup, football is a contact sport right?

P.S.-I bet on Denver, so these calls benefited me personally but I thought they were terrible nonetheless. I had no other rooting interest in the contest.

7 Re: Clutch Encounters: CAR-DEN

Simple: he's not supposed to make that hit at all. That hit involved him leaving his feet to launch upward at the ball carrier. Horrible tackling form, if you can even call it that. Even if Cam hadn't "ducked" (he was bracing himself and in the process of falling down) it would have still hit him in the head.

As for the Marshall non-call, it would have at the very least been offset. On the same play Kalil got flagged for a ticky tack face mask penalty (it looked like the tip of his glove got caught on the helmet), which wiped out what would have been a big first down pickup for Carolina. Instead it was 3rd and 25 backed up. At the very least it should have been 3rd and 10 instead of 3rd and 25. Alternatively had they swallowed both flags it would have been 1st and 10 Carolina.

Whatever the case, I'm sure glad they flagged that Carolina lineman for jumping up and down after a touchdown. Wouldn't want kids at home to see that sort of behavior.

2 Re: H2H hits

I thought the D Stewart (called) and B Marshall (not called) hits were terrible and should result in fines/suspensions. They were not being blocked and were just taking free runs at C Newton just after he released the ball with the intent of hitting him high and hard using their helmets as battering rams. Newton may have dipped his head a little on the Stewart hit, but the hit would still have probably hit Newton in the chin. Just don't launch yourself helmet first at a defenseless player in the open field. It's not safe for the offensive or defensive player.

Collinsworth seemed to make an issue of H2H on V Miller during the D Ware sack. I don't think that should be a foul. Newton is falling down from the Ware tackle and Miller is still engaged with a blocker. Sometimes heads are going to bump when people are being pushed and knocked down. Miller wasn't just taking a free run at Newton where he could control how he hit him.

3 Re: H2H hits

I thought the D Stewart (called) and B Marshall (not called) hits were terrible and should result in fines/suspensions. They were not being blocked and were just taking free runs at C Newton just after he released the ball with the intent of hitting him high and hard using their helmets as battering rams. Newton may have dipped his head a little on the Stewart hit, but the hit would still have probably hit Newton in the chin. Just don't launch yourself helmet first at a defenseless player in the open field. It's not safe for the offensive or defensive player.

Collinsworth seemed to make an issue of H2H on V Miller during the D Ware sack. I don't think that should be a foul. Newton is falling down from the Ware tackle and Miller is still engaged with a blocker. Sometimes heads are going to bump when people are being pushed and knocked down. Miller wasn't just taking a free run at Newton where he could control how he hit him.

8 Re: H2H hits

In reply to by wardh2o

Agreed on which hits were issues and which were not, although I personally don't think Marshall's hit was bad enough to merit a suspension. Additionally, the uncalled helmet-to-helmet contact by Roby on Newton is the sort of thing that a tackler can't really avoid. Roby was leading with his shoulder and trying to go low to make a tackle, and Newton went low to meet him.

9 Re: Clutch Encounters: CAR-DEN

I hope Stewart sees a large fine, and at least a final warning to a suspension. His was the kind of hit that should be one of two infractions towards an ejection as well. It was terrible tackling form, and late enough, though not as ridiculously late as some hits, to bel inexcusable. Launching head first without arms should be an automatic spearing I reckon (I don't follow college football - but wouldn't that be automatic ejection now in college game? Maybe in a few years when players used to that are everywhere in the NFL things will clean up that way?).

Roby and Miller both seems to be me to be of the kind that are best called incidental, or at least non-penalised in game. Miller's especially seemed to be a case of if two people wearing helmets collide standing up, neither in full control, then helmets will tend to clash, even if fairly incidentally.

I'll have to watch Marshall's again but it certainly didn't at the time seem anything like as bad as Stewart's stupid and dangerous play. Still surprised that grounding and a 15 yard player-safety penalty offset. Wouldn't object to seeing that changed. Make a class of personal-foul/roughness/unsportsman-like-conduct calls that do not offset (or maybe the yardage can offset, but the first down always happens?).

Not excusing Stewart at all, but one the other side there were a number of uncalled facemark grabs by the Carolina OL, Wolfe several times had his head twisted all over the place, and left the game due to neck problems for a time.

Broncos probably got the best of the officiating, but not by more than homoeteams often do I feel. Panthers didn't help themselves with two really dumb 15 yard fouls, and nearly got a break on the hand-to-the-face at the end when it looked like Harris and Benjamin both looked like they stuck a hand up too high, but both brought them down within a stride without grabbing hold.

10 Re: Clutch Encounters: CAR-DEN

Stewart was leading with his shoulder pads, actually, and not his helmet. Notice how he angles his head so that his shoulder makes first contact. The reason there was helmet-to-helmet contact is because Newton ducked his head. I thought it was a clean, violent football hit that shouldn't have been flagged and shouldn't be fined. The Marshall hit, on the other hand, should have been flagged and should be fined.