Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Emmanuel Sanders

Film Room: Emmanuel Sanders
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

If the Denver Broncos are going to win Super Bowl 50, they will need to win a low-scoring game. That's the only type of game the Carolina Panthers have lost this season. The Panthers' sole defeat this year came in Week 16 against the Atlanta Falcons, when they were held to 13 points. Since that game, the Panthers have cut through opponents with ease, scoring 38, 31, and 49 points against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks, and Arizona Cardinals. The Broncos have a better defense than any of those three teams, so they should feel more confident in their ability to contain Cam Newton's offense. The biggest question for Super Bowl 50, though, is how will the Broncos score points?

When the Broncos last went to the Super Bowl two years ago, they were a completely different team. Gary Kubiak's club this year is built on the quality of its defense, a top-ranked unit that showed its superiority against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The 2013 version of Peyton Manning's offense was the most productive in the NFL. Manning set a record for touchdown passes during the regular season, while the Broncos scored more than 40 points on six separate occasions that year. In the Super Bowl, that offense was shut down by a ravenous Seattle Seahawks defense. The Broncos scored just eight points because specific matchups on the field that day mattered more than each team's season-long achievements.

If full-season accomplishments were going to determine how this game would go, the Broncos wouldn't score a point. The Panthers have the second best defense in the NFL by DVOA while the Broncos offense ranked 25th. It might be comforting for the Broncos that they improved in weighted DVOA during the latter stages of the regular season, but that improvement came when Brock Osweiler was the team's starting quarterback.

The Broncos have scored 43 total points in their two playoff games so far. Both games came against defenses that ranked outside the top 10 in DVOA during the regular season. The Panthers scored more than 43 points in the NFC Championship Game alone, while they gave up just 39 total points against the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, two offenses that boast more talent than the Broncos do these days. In short, the Broncos are the clear underdogs in this game, and it's because of their limitations on the offensive side of the ball.

The one spot where they can try and create an imbalance that works in their favor is at wide receiver. Josh Norman isn't on the level of prime Darrelle Revis, but he's not someone at whom you want to be aggressive in throwing the ball. Instead, targeting the Panthers' other cornerbacks should prove to be a profitable venture for the Broncos. More specifically, Denver needs to target the cornerback who is playing across from Emmanuel Sanders.

Sanders has been an integral part of both of the Broncos' playoff victories this year. His numbers haven't been spectacular -- he has 10 receptions for 147 yards with no touchdowns through two games. Instead, what Sanders has done is make important and difficult plays in tight games. He had a fourth-down drop against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the divisional round, but he also led the team in receiving and had their longest reception, a 34-yarder when they were trailing during the fourth quarter. It was against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game when Sanders' value really stood out though.

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The Broncos scored a touchdown on their very first drive of that game. It was one of only two they scored on the day but it came when the Broncos were able to execute a sustained drive, creating yardage in different ways. The drive could have ended quickly though, as the Broncos faced a third-and-10 on just the third snap. Sanders saw his first target on this play. He was working against Malcolm Butler in off coverage. The cornerback gave Sanders too much of a cushion, allowing him to comfortably execute his curl route so that he settled past the first-down marker.

At this point, there's no secret to who Peyton Manning is as a quarterback. He's still relatively sharp mentally, but his arm talent has waned to the point that he can't comfortably put the ball where he wants to put it at the time he wants to put it there. This specific play highlights Manning's lack of arm talent. He releases the ball as Sanders turns out of his break instead of throwing with anticipation. As it would with any quarterback, this forces Sanders to wait. However, with Manning, the ball hangs in the air, forcing the receiver to wait longer than would be typical with most NFL quarterbacks. Not only that, Sanders is forced to make a tough adjustment that exposes his body to a big hit.

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Sanders' route was routine because of the poor play from Butler, which is the type of coverage he can expect when he faces off against Robert McClain or Cortland Finnegan in the Super Bowl. What he did at the catch point is something at which he has excelled throughout his career. Sanders was derided in Pittsburgh for not being consistent enough catching the ball. It was always an overstated flaw in his skill set, but especially so when considered against his ability to make this type of reception. Catches like this are among the most difficult because the receiver must not only locate the ball in an unnatural spot, but also adjust to it while exposing the more sensitive parts of the body to punishment.

By not extending his arms and leaving his feet, Sanders is able to negate some of that punishment by creating a smaller surface for Butler to hit. The trade-off is that Sanders now has a tougher catch to make. He has to gain control of the ball while in the air before landing on top of it from a significant height. Even if you're a receiver who can adjust and is willing to expose himself to this kind of punishment, completing the play is still very difficult.

Before the first quarter came to a close, Sanders had his second target and his second reception. It was also his second first-down catch on a third-down play.

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One of the most significant developments in Manning's decline over the past 12 months has been his inability to throw the ball deep downfield. Against the Indianapolis Colts in the 2014 playoffs, Manning repeatedly missed open receivers downfield by overthrowing his passes. It's something he has consistently done since that game, and also something he did against the Patriots on potential touchdown throws in his most recent game. Manning still has the arm to push the ball downfield, but he doesn't possess the same precision as a passer because he has to put more effort into throwing the ball that far. His relationship with Demaryius Thomas has declined significantly because Thomas relied on Manning's precision more than Sanders did.

Sanders' relationship with his quarterback is more beneficial to Manning because he can adjust to floating passes with greater ease. On the rarer occasion when Manning's deep passes are catchable, they are underthrown rather than thrown to the exact spot the receiver wants. In the above gif, Sanders can be seen setting up his sideline route against Butler. He does this expertly by accelerating towards the cornerback's inside shoulder before transitioning outside fluidly. Butler stays with Sanders through the gif, but the receiver has already beaten him. Butler can't turn and run with Sanders if the ball is thrown outside and downfield.

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This ball isn't thrown outside or downfield. It is thrown inside and towards Butler rather than Sanders. Sanders recognizes the flight of it early though. He is able to slow down his route and come to a stop quickly before rising above Butler to reach above him and pull the ball away. This is a phenomenal play, turning a pass that should have been intercepted into a 34-yard gain for the offense. Sanders simply beat Butler because he is the more talented player. He prevented Butler from playing the ball comfortably with his route before beating the cornerback at the catch point with his superior athleticism and ball skills.

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On this type of play, Sanders can cover for his quarterback. When Manning overthrows him, he can't. On Sanders' next two targets in this game, Manning overthrew the receiver after he had created big separation in the end zone before missing him on a double- move down the left sideline for a potential big play. Sanders had two more receptions that were extremely impressive, but Manning can't afford to miss those opportunities against the Panthers.

Both the Seahawks and Cardinals failed to take full advantage of their matchup advantages against the Panthers' lesser defensive backs. Carson Palmer entered the playoffs in a funk and couldn't turn his own play around in the NFC Championship Game. Palmer nuked any opportunity his receivers would have had to create big plays downfield. The Seahawks enjoyed more success during the second half of their game against the Panthers in the divisional round. Everyone on the Seahawks struggled in the first half, but they were the better team throughout the second half. Russell Wilson missed what proved to be a decisive throw, though.

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This play came with 10:20 left in the third quarter, not in the final moments, so it didn't decide the game in the traditional sense. Even at the time, though, it was obvious that this play was going to have a massive impact on the outcome. The Seahawks couldn't afford to waste any drives in the second half as they attempted to overcome a 31-point deficit. They had opened the third quarter with a quick touchdown drive followed by a quick defensive stop, setting up the offense with an opportunity to score another quick touchdown.

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Doug Baldwin runs a crisp double-move route and is isolated against safety Kurt Coleman. Coleman overplays the inside route, giving Baldwin a clean route down the sideline. This is a pass that Wilson has hit repeatedly throughout the year, but he simply overshot his mark on this occasion. Wilson later finished this drive with a touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett, but his overthrow on the Baldwin pass cost them about 2:30 on the clock. The Seahawks ultimately lost by one score, running out of time in the fourth quarter. Had this pass connected, the game would not have gone in a completely different direction, but time would have been less significant a factor than it ultimately proved to be.

Repelling the often overwhelming advances of the Panthers defense will require everyone on the Broncos offense to play better than they have this season. It truly is a swarming unit that can suffocate lesser opponents. Any game plan the Broncos conduct should center around finding Sanders though. He is an exceptional talent and someone with whom the Panthers will struggle to match up. Thomas is obvious hugely athletic and extremely dangerous also, but Sanders' ability to bail his quarterback out on less-than-perfect passes should make him the bigger factor in this game.


4 comments, Last at 04 Feb 2016, 12:55pm

1 Re: Film Room: Emmanuel Sanders

This type of analysis depresses me. Even two years ago these throws were automatic for Manning. If he had this kind of defense in Indy, he would have won 3-4 SBs. Sucks that he gets this opportunity when he is now the weak link.