by Scott Kacsmar
One big pass play can change the complexion of a Super Bowl. It does not always have to be a deep pass, but most big passing plays come on long throws. Just think where these games may have gone in the last decade if these long gains had never happened.
- Super Bowl XL: Ben Roethlisberger to Hines Ward for 37 yards on third-and-28 againt Seattle (longest third-down conversion in Super Bowl history).
- Super Bowl XLI: Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne for a 53-yard touchdown on third-and-10 against Chicago.
- Super Bowl XLII: Eli Manning to David Tyree for 32 yards with 59 seconds left against New England (The "Helmet Catch").
- Super Bowl XLIII: After Larry Fitzgerald's 64-yard touchdown, Santonio Holmes goes for 40 yards after Aaron Francisco falls down.
- Super Bowl XLV: To avoid going three-and-out with the Packers only leading Pittsburgh 28-25, Aaron Rodgers found Greg Jennings for 31 yards on third-and-10.
- Super Bowl XLVI: Eli Manning to Mario Manningham on a perfect 38-yard throw and catch to get the game-winning drive against New England started.
- Super Bowl XLVII: Jacoby Jones' 56-yard touchdown catch from Joe Flacco put Baltimore ahead of San Francisco 21-3.
- Super Bowl XLIX: Jermaine Kearse's insane 33-yard deflected catch may have been a blessing and a curse for Seattle, setting up the fateful goal-to-go opportunity in the final minute against New England.
Aside from the Kearse catch, each of these plays led to points for the winning team. You have quarterbacks extending plays, receivers breaking tackles, defenses blowing coverages, and some wild deflections. In the biggest game of the year, you will take a big play by any means necessary.
For the purposes of this study, we are going to define a big pass play as any gain of at least 25 yards (regardless of air yards). Barring a return to form for Demaryius Thomas or Peyton Manning hitting Emmanuel Sanders in stride, you do not really expect the Denver offense to add to this list of big pass plays. On 718 pass plays this season (including the playoffs), the Broncos have 30 completions that gained at least 25 yards (4.2 percent), the fifth-lowest rate in the league. Meanwhile, Carolina's defense allowed the second-lowest rate (3.4 percent) of big pass plays.
In Super Bowl 50, the matchup of Carolina's big-play offense and Denver's great defense is the one to watch. Behind Cam Newton, Carolina's offense ranks fourth in big pass-play rate (6.1 percent) with 36 completions, including a season-high four against a good Arizona defense in the NFC Championship Game. You might expect that the only defense to rank ahead of Carolina here to be Denver, but that is not the case -- it is the Bengals. The Broncos are eighth in limiting big pass plays (4.4 percent), and they allowed three in each playoff game to Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady, who were getting their second looks at Wade Phillips' defense this season. Those two passers combined for one such completion in their first meetings with Denver.
In reviewing the big pass plays created by the Carolina offense and allowed by the Denver defense this season, some trends emerged. The following table summarizes the findings.
|Statistic||Carolina Offense||Denver Defense|
|Big pass plays||36||32|
|Average gain (yards)||38.5||36.8|
|Average air yards||24.8||18.5|
|Passes thrown 25+ yards||19 (52.8%)||8 (25.0%)|
|Passes thrown at or behind LOS||0||3 (9.4%)|
|Shotgun/pistol snaps||28 (77.8%)||28 (87.5%)|
|Play-action passes||9 (25.0%)||3 (9.4%)|
|Receiver breakdown||20 WR, 15 TE, 1 RB||20 WR, 9 TE, 3 RB|
|Average pass rushers||4.4||4.4|
|Plays vs. 5+ rushers||15 (41.7%)||11 (34.4%)|
|Plays with 7+ blockers||13 (36.1%)||2 (6.3%)|
|Quarterback out of pocket||3 (8.3%)||2 (6.3%)|
|Quarterback under pressure||5 (13.9%)||9 (28.1%)|
|Quarterback extended play||3 (8.3%)||4 (12.5%)|
|Man coverage||17 (47.2%)||22 (68.8%)|
|Zone coverage||11 (30.6%)||6 (18.8%)|
|Blown coverage or uncovered||8 (22.2%)||4 (12.5%)|
We will look at some of these in greater detail, but let's start with some of the basics. First, this is a shotgun-heavy league, and both units saw 28 of these plays come from the shotgun or pistol. That makes it a little harder to take advantage of play-action passing, but Carolina does more of that than Denver's defense saw. Newton usually uses play-action from the shotgun, with hesitation that he may run working to his favor.
Newton definitely likes to throw the ball vertically down the field. His average pass attempt traveled 10.5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage this season, third in the league behind only Roethlisberger (10.6) and Carson Palmer (10.9). When he is looking for a big play, he usually throws deep, as over half of the plays here were thrown beyond 25 yards. That may not be as effective against Denver's talented secondary, which should have both safeties (T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart) back healthy for the Super Bowl. With Tyrann Mathieu out, Arizona's safeties really struggled against this Carolina offense. Including the playoffs, Denver allowed 8-of-44 completions (18.2 percent) on passes thrown at least 25 yards down the field. Newton is 19-of-62 (30.7 percent) on such throws this season. You can count on Carolina to take some shots with a receiving corps that has speed and size.
None of the big plays for Carolina came from screen passes, while the Broncos were gashed for big gains on bubble screens to Golden Tate and De'Anthony Thomas. There was a little more variety to the big plays allowed by Denver, including more YAC plays, which is really not a Carolina strength.
Extending the Play
My main motivation to look at this was probably the perceived weakness of Denver's defense against mobile quarterbacks. In previewing the AFC Championship Game, I noticed the top five games in yards allowed against Denver were to teams with mobile quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Andrew Luck, Jay Cutler and Teddy Bridgewater. The Chicago game was especially noteworthy, with Cutler able to hit four big pass plays (a season-worst for Denver) even though Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal were on the inactive list. Maybe the familiarity John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase had with Denver's personnel helped that day, but there were receivers left wide open for Cutler.
You can see the hurry-up offense helped catch Denver off guard here, and some subtle movement from Cutler in the pocket opened up an easy throwing lane to a wide-open receiver with Aqib Talib in coverage. If Cutler had thrown a better pass, this likely would have been a touchdown.
Denver loves to play man coverage, so it could be in trouble when the play breaks down and the receivers start running a second route for some old-fashioned backyard football. The counterpoint to this would be the Green Bay game where, despite Aaron Rodgers' scrambling, his receivers were still plastered by Denver's secondary and the Packers finished with 50 net passing yards. However, Rodgers did not have a very good group of receivers this year. Newton has the ability to extend the play, and his receivers are fast enough to get open against man coverage.
But after studying these 68 plays, I was surprised to discover just how many came from standard, in-the-pocket offense. Only five plays saw the quarterback get out of the pocket. Newton was only pressured on five of his throws, but more on that later. Denver got pressure nine times, but the quarterback still made some good throws, which you just have to live with.
The most surprising part was finding just three plays where Newton extended things by scrambling, or when the defense made him move to a different release point. Denver only had this happen four times, with Cutler having two of the plays, and Bridgewater and Roethlisberger having one each. Upon further review of the Indianapolis game where the Broncos' pass defense had a season-worst 51.3% DVOA, Luck just did a really good job of hanging in there until the last possible second before releasing the ball. So I identified the right type of quarterbacks against this defense, but the actual act of extending the play to hit a big gain was simply a very rare occurrence both for the Denver defense and for the Carolina offense. That is not to say Newton is incapable of doing so on Sunday night, but it has not been necessary for the Panthers this season. The blocking has been strong, and the receivers do their job well.
Here is Newton avoiding the pass rush against the Colts and doing a great job to find fullback Mike Tolbert wide open in the flat. Tolbert had plenty of room ahead of him for a 40-yard gain, the longest of the season for any Carolina running back. This offense only had 51 catches by running backs, so this is definitely not the norm.
A week later against Green Bay, Newton had no problem with a three-man rush on third-and-16, stepping up to find Jerricho Cotchery wide open for a 59-yard gain, his longest reception of the season. The only other time Newton extended the play was in Week 17 against Tampa Bay. After avoiding a sack, he was nearly intercepted, but got the fortunate bounce to Devin Funchess for a 41-yard gain. Yeah, it's just been that kind of year for Carolina.
Carolina's Protection Schemes
What really stood out in watching Carolina's offense was the use of seven-man protection schemes, usually keeping a running back and tight end in to block. Tolbert and backup tight end Ed Dickson may not get a lot of touches, but they play a lot of snaps and are willing blockers. You can see Carolina faced the same average number of rushers (4.4) as Denver sent, with neither seeing a ton of blitzing, but the difference comes in blocking. Teams only went to a max-protection scheme twice against Denver, while Carolina used at least seven blockers 13 times. Despite only sending three receivers on routes, Carolina was able to get receivers wide open while giving Newton a pristine pocket from which to throw.
7-man protection scheme is crucial to Carolina's deep passing game. Ridiculous how open the receivers get. pic.twitter.com/5xhbNjPtJT
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 30, 2016
When you can get protection like that and have a speedster like Ted Ginn Jr. against Brandon Browner, you get a 55-yard completion.
7-man protection + Brandon Browner in coverage = pristine pocket and a 55-yard completion. pic.twitter.com/LoGkBvEZZO
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) February 1, 2016
Going with extra blockers to help the tackles against Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware could be very beneficial to Carolina in this matchup. However, the receivers will have to make plays against a better secondary than the likes of New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
Types of Coverage
Denver is known to play a lot of man coverage, and you can see 22 of the 32 plays allowed were in man coverage. They also had four blown coverages, including two easy 80-yard touchdowns to Charcandrick West and San Diego rookie Tyrell Williams. After Roethlisberger shredded Denver's man defense in Week 15, Phillips vowed to use more zone in the AFC divisional round matchup. Even with Antonio Brown inactive, Pittsburgh's receivers made some big plays against a confused Denver defense. This next play shows both the effect a mobile quarterback can have and Denver's discomfort with zone coverage.
Chris Harris is already a bit in no man's land in between the two receivers while covering the left slot, but as Roethlisberger moves up in the pocket, Harris reacts to him and leaves Martavis Bryant wide open. Bryant's speed after the catch led to a 52-yard gain.
In the first couple games of the season, Carolina's fastest receivers (Ginn and Corey Brown) were roasting man coverage with double moves. You started to see more zone, but there was also some really bizarre stuff like a linebacker trying to cover Ginn down the field. Of course that was New Orleans (post-Rob Ryan firing), but even Atlanta did the same thing a week later for a 46-yard touchdown. The Seahawks had problems with tight ends all year and Greg Olsen confused them for three big plays, including a game-winning touchdown that left Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas yelling at each other.
Carolina forced eight plays with a blown coverage or a receiver left totally uncovered. This can be a very difficult offense to prepare for given that it forces you to defend the run of both the back and the quarterback. When the Panthers are in short-yardage situations, they can be very deceptive and get an open receiver, like this throwback play to Olsen against Houston in Week 2.
Super Bowl 50 Strategies
After all this buildup, it will probably be Vernon Davis with the longest catch of the night on a bootleg pass no one thought Manning could make. But this should be a great matchup to watch. Denver will likely play a lot of man, putting Harris and Bradley Roby on the speedier receivers in Ginn and Brown. Talib is a better fit for the bigger Funchess or apossession receiver like Cotchery. If the Broncos do play zone, they had better hope the safety gets there in time with the speed of these receivers, but Olsen really seems to be the key factor to this game.
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From the success Rob Gronkowski had against Danny Trevathan, I am not sure the Broncos can expect their linebackers to win many of those matchups down the seam. Olsen may not be dominant after the catch, but he is fast and runs his routes crisply like a wideout. That is why I would use Talib on him at times, especially if Carolina loads up on protection.
Denver should stick with the minimal blitzing strategy from last week, but defending Brady and the Patriots is much different than defending Newton. As much as it would appear that Denver has enough to cover these receivers, we see defenses lose track of them anyway by peeking into the backfield in fear of the run.
One big pass play can completely turn this game around. Denver should know that as well as any team. We'll just have to see if Carolina or Denver can add another big pass play to Super Bowl lore.