CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Five things to watch Sunday when the Broncos face the Carolina Panthers:
1. SEEING THE ZONE READ OPTION AGAIN.
Just when you thought it was forever gone from Broncos Sundays — it’s back! But Carolina doesn’t do the same things that the Broncos did with Tim Tebow running the show. For one thing, Cam Newton is a more viable passer than Tebow; his 2012 completion percentage is 10.7 percent higher than the ex-Broncos’ starter’s was in 2011.
“When you have a guy who’s that athletic with that strong an arm, it presents a different set of challenges,” said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Carolina doesn’t use it as extensively as the Broncos did last year, so it is up to the defensive ends and linebackers to identify it off the snap — and then not get caught out of position. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil are well-qualified to deal with this conundrum in a disciplined manner, since they saw the zone-read option so often in practice last year — and know well the differences in results between those whose defenders stayed at home (Buffalo, New England, Chicago) and those that did not (Pittsburgh, Oakland).
2. A MATTER OF SIZE.
As Champ Bailey accurately noted on Thursday, Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith plays well above his 5-foot-9 stature. Smith’s leaps are perfectly timed and his mid-air body control remains peerless. So don’t pay any heed to his size and the Broncos’ ability to use the taller Bailey to create a mismatch; this will be a duel as tough as the one he faced against Cincinnati’s A.J. Green.
But the Broncos can exploit a size mismatch on Carolina’s cornerbacks. Wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas are 6-foot-3 and 218 and 229 pounds, respectively. Panthers starters Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn check in at 6-feet/195 and 5-foot-8/190. Don’t be surprised if many of Manning’s looks to his two wide receivers are on slants toward the middle, giving Decker and Thomas the chance to use their size to create space and break a tackle, turning short gains into longer ones.
3. YET ANOTHER TIGHT END.
What will D.J. Williams’ place be when he returns from suspension on Monday? That could be determined by how well Danny Trevathan and other linebackers fare in covering Greg Olsen, who is the latest in a litany of pass-catching tight ends to test the Broncos. Trevathan ought to fare better against him than he did against Cincinnati’s Jermaine Gresham and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham; Olsen hasn’t scored a touchdown since September and has averaged just 8.5 yards per reception the last three weeks.
4. THE FOX FACTOR.
It’s easy to think Broncos coach John Fox wants to put the hammer down on the team and owner that didn’t renew his contract.
But Fox has a merciful streak. In 2008, his Panthers — en route to a 12-4 record that was the best in franchise history — faced the outmanned Chiefs, destined for a 2-14 finish in Herm Edwards’ last season there. The hapless Chiefs were shut out 34-0 and didn’t get their second first down of the game until just 6:15 was left in the third quarter — at which point they had just 17 total yards and were averaging 29 inches per play. So Fox stopped passing the football, closing the game with 14 consecutive runs while gradually pulling all of his starters. Fox knew Edwards from their time together in San Diego State’s secondary in the mid-1970′s; he didn’t want to embarrass an old friend.
Sure, Fox would like for his team to show the Panthers what it missed out on. He’s human. But he’ll walk into Bank of America Stadium and see security guards, maintenance workers and other staffers with whom he was cordial. He still has a home in Charlotte. He thinks fondly of many people within and outside the organization in the area. And he’ll probably get a warm ovation from fans who more deeply appreciate a coach that was on the sideline for their only conference championship and five of their six all-time playoff wins.
All that being said …
5. DON’T EXPECT A BLOWOUT.
Individually, the Panthers have motivation. With no general manager in place after the sacking of Marty Hurney last month, this is a team of players fighting for their jobs — and most know the best way to keep their current positions is to win, and ensure Ron Rivera has at least one more year to implement his program.
Carolina is close. Since a 36-7 home rout at the hands of the New York Giants, they’ve lost road games against two of the league’s best teams — Atlanta and Chicago — by a combined three points. Denver lost to Atlanta and Houston (which, like the Bears, is 7-1) by a combined 12 points, and one of those games was at home.
If the Broncos underestimate the Panthers, they will stumble.