Earlier this year, the Denver Broncos keyed in on the Carolina Panthers’ biggest offseason weakness. Instead of worrying about Cam Newton and Greg Olsen, like so many other teams had done, they decided to force the Panthers depleted wide receivers unit to make plays.
Mike Shula’s offense relied on ample time for Cam Newton in the pocket and receiver routes that required that time to develop. Without a “star receiver”, the Panthers forced defensive backs to cover the field for a longer period of time. The result, up until the Super Bowl, was a sound passing attack without much talent. It seems the Broncos took notice, and then took the time away.
The Carolina Panthers paid dearly. Often times the Broncos brought six defenders at Cam Newton, knowing the Panthers receivers would not be able to get open in the short amount of time allowed. Guess what? It worked.
Compare the above example to the example below from the offensive juggernaut LA Rams against the Denver defense. Under the same amount of pressure, Rams quarterback Case Keenum is able to deliver the ball a full second faster than Cam Newton ever could. A second may not sound like much, but within the pocket it is a lifetime. If Keenum waited even half a second longer, it would have been a sack.
Instead, it was a first down with plenty of yards after catch added on.
After the Super Bowl, Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula received a good amount of criticism for not making adjustments. Sadly, you simply cannot make adjustments when you lack the talent required for that particular adjustment. The result was, well, you don’t need reminding. The Broncos found the Panthers’ Achilles heal, credit goes to them.
So what does this mean for the Carolina Panthers this year? Has anything changed since February?
Well, yes, much has changed.
For one, the Carolina Panthers will have a healthy Kelvin Benjamin against the Broncos next week. This instantly and substantially increases the wide receiver talent pool for the Panthers over the previous match. The Broncos, at the very least, have to worry about a play making Carolina Panthers receiver, something they did not do during the Super Bowl.
As important as having Benjamin is, I don’t think he will be the biggest “difference maker” next Thursday in Denver. Instead, I suspect second year receiver Devin Funchess will really flip the script. Unlike Benjamin who is purely a possession receiver, Funchess can run every route on the field. It is Funchess that can cross over the middle quickly and body out a defender for the ball. He won’t need 4+ seconds to get open. His speed and catch radius make him open almost immediately.
Last year Funchess was far too inexperienced for this task, but this year he has shown to be more than capable. Devin Funchess has, at times, looked like the best Panthers receiver on the field.
You can safely bet the Denver Broncos will be sending 5 or even 6 defenders at Cam Newton early and often. They will continue to do so until Mike Shula and Cam Newton counter with quick strikes for big gains. The good news for the Panthers? Unlike last season, they now have the players to make that happen.