Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Antonio Gates, Jordan Cameron and Health Miller, to name a few, have all made life difficult for the Denver Broncos defense; at times, those tight ends have gotten the best of the top-ranked defense. Nearing the NFL season’s final game, the Broncos are ready for one last challenge.
“[Greg] Olsen. I think he has been one of the most targeted guys in the league, especially tight ends, so we are ready for him. It has been great we had tests against Gronk twice, so we’ve had our tests with tights ends and I think our guys are prepared and ready to go,” Chris Harris Jr. said Wednesday.
The Panthers are a run-first team, averaging 142.6 yards per game rushing in the regular season, but they will use the run to set up some big pass plays Sunday and Greg Olsen will be the likely target for most of Cam Newton’s throws. Olsen led the team in regular season receptions by more than 33 and has 12 receptions in two playoff games, six more than wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. With such gaudy stats, Olsen certainly is the the Broncos top-ranked pass defense’s biggest threat.
Olsen pulled down 77 catches for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season on his way to his second consecutive Pro Bowl. He also caught several passes within the five-yard line, setting up numerous touchdowns for the Panthers, heavily influencing their league-leading 31.3 points per game average during the regular season.
Sunday he will be a huge outlet for Newton as the quarterback tries to combat the Broncos’ heavy pass rush. Numerous Broncos will be tasked with defending Olsen but Danny Trevathan, Brandon Marshall and T.J. Ward will surely get the bulk of the responsibilities. Trevathan in particular, knows the challenge Olsen presents and understands that importance of taking him out of the game plan as much as possible.
“[Olsen] is versatile, he’s slippery and he’s very instinctive and he’s a great player. He’s been doing it for a minute now and I have nothing but respect for what he did. He’s one of the best receiving tight ends in the league and our job is to shut him down. He’s one of the best at getting open and creating spaces for Cam Newton, when he can’t really think he knows who to go to so my job is going to be to shut that down,” Trevathan said Wednesday.
Olsen, a nine-year veteran, joined the Panthers in 2011 after four seasons with the Chicago Bears. He has become one of the most reliable tight ends in the NFL, playing in 142 consecutive games and he rarely misses an offensive play. Broncos tight end and 10-year veteran Owen Daniels knows the position well and marvels at Olsen’s ability to stay on the field so much.
“I like Greg’s game a lot,” Daniels said Wednesday. “He has just got better and better every year. It means a lot for him to be out there every snap. I am sure he trains in the offseason so he can do that. I am pretty sure he plays about 99 or 100 percent of the snaps every game. So you [have] to give him a lot of credit for that. He gets a lot of looks; he is a really important part of their offense.”
Olsen lines up everywhere on the field and he is preparing for the Broncos versatile defense and how the linebackers will influence his role in the game.
“I think their [linebackers] are athletic, fast, they get to the ball and they give them a lot of flexibility. I think with their athleticism, not only their ability to hang in there with the run, their ability to play coverage and if they want to bring pressure and match up with the tight ends, it gives the coordinator a lot of options,” Olsen said Wednesday.
Trevathan and Marshall were tested extensively in the AFC Championship against New England and they held their own. The Patriots split out their running backs to try and exploit the linebackers’ coverage skills, targeting them 19 times but only completed seven of those passes. Gronkowski, however, did get loose for eight catches for 144 yards and a touchdown. The Panthers will likely move Olsen all over the field but Chris Harris Jr., the best coverage man on the team, thinks his linebackers can handle Olsen if that is what defensive coordinator Wade Phillips asks of them.
“I think we have the best cover linebackers in the league. I don’t see a lot of linebackers that play man against running backs and tight ends like our guys do. They have the speed and ability to cover anybody,” he said Wednesday.
Olsen continued his regular season success in the NFC Championship versus the Arizona Cardinals, catching six passes on eight targets for 113 yards, including a huge 54-yard gain in the fourth quarter of the 49-15 Panthers victory. The last line of defense will be Ward and Darian Stewart who both got back to practice Wednesday while nursing injuries sustained in the win over the Patriots. They have the ability to help the linebackers if Olsen reaches the back end of the defense.
“The biggest key is those guys are not one-dimensional. They can come down and play in the box for run support as well as play man and also in the free spot, cover ground and make up the difference. Those guys are a great combo, very talented,” Olsen said Monday.
Stewart and his teammates have seen tight ends influence games against the Broncos from Week 1 to the AFC Championship. He intercepted Joe Flacco trying to complete a game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Crockett Gillmore in Week 1 as time wound down, and eventually witnessed Harris lose the battle to Gronkowski in the fourth quarter of AFC Championship. He knows Olsen is the last test and wouldn’t want it any other way.
“We’ve played them all this year, so it’s another test for us man and a big challenge,” he said Wednesday. “I kind of figured it would come to this. You know this is what we want. We’ll leave it all on the field.”