For the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl 50, they'll need Peyton Manning to continue playing mistake-free. On the other side of the ball, they'll need to stop the seemingly unstoppable Cam Newton.
Many have tried — coaches, players, a Tennessee mom — but to no avail. The man just keeps scoring touchdowns. Including the playoffs, he has scored 50 total (38 passing, 12 rushing).
When people say Newton's unstoppable, yes, they're exaggerating. But only slightly. This season, he gained a first down on 42.4 percent of his rushes, which led the NFL. He has gained a first down on at least 40 percent of his rushes every season since 2012, his rookie year.
In the red zone, he has been even more effective, gaining a first down on 51.5 percent of his regular season and postseason rushes. Thanks in part to Newton's 12 rushing touchdowns, the Carolina Panthers have reached the end zone seven out of every 10 trips inside the 20-yard line. The Broncos, however, have been excellent at keeping teams out of the red zone altogether, limiting opponents to a scant 105 plays, third-fewest in the NFL.
When Newton is running, he's not doing it to escape pressure. Just 29 of his 132 rushes this season were scrambles, according to Pro Football Focus. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks scrambled twice as often.
Let's take a look at how the Panthers use Newton, specifically once they reach the 20-yard line.
The read option has become as synonymous with Carolina as barbecue sauce. On this variation in Week 7 against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Panthers ask tight end Greg Olsen, lined up on the left side of the offensive line, to block Brandon Graham, the edge defender that Newton would typically read. With Graham blocked, Newton reads defensive lineman Taylor Hart.
When Hart crashes down on running back Mike Tolbert, Newton keeps the ball, runs around the left end and reaches across the goal line for the touchdown. If Hart doesn't crash down, Newton simply hands the ball off to Tolbert. (I would not be surprised at all on Sunday if we see a Broncos defender punch the ball out of Newton's grasp as he reaches for the goal line.)
Late in the third quarter of the NFC championship game, Carolina used power and deception to great effect against Arizona on a demoralizing 12-yard touchdown run.
The Panthers come to the line in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). All three receivers set on the left side of the field, and the tight end — Olsen — lines up on the right side of the offensive line. Tolbert initially sets up on Newton's right, but just before the snap, he moves to his left and begins running to the flat.
Immediately after the snap, the Cardinals' focus is on the left side of the field. Safety Deone Bucannon and linebacker Kevin Minter abandon the middle. Newton looks left as though he's considering swinging a pass out to Tolbert. Instead, he turns the other way.
The Panthers easily handle the Cardinals' four-man rush, and the center and guard pull right to block downfield. As Newton runs around the right end, he has only two men to beat. His linemen eliminate them from the equation; the guard takes out cornerback Justin Bethel, and the center takes out safety Tony Jefferson. No one touches Newton until he is leaping into the end zone.
We saw the Panthers try the same concept against the Bucs back in Week 4, but Olsen could not contain defensive end Jacquies Smith's burst off the line. Newton retreated to avoid a sack and eventually ran out of bounds for an 8-yard loss.
In 18 games this season, Newton has averaged 38.1 yards on 8.5 carries. He'll get another six to 10 carries Sunday — and one of them could very well be some version of the concept above.
Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.