It certainly came as a surprise to myself to witness the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 by a score of 24-10. While that score seemed right in the wheelhouse of my own prediction, I imagined that it would have been the Panthers triumphant over the Broncos.
Instead, the Broncos pass rush that also dominated the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots was able to swing the game in their favor with a repeat performance against the Panthers.
Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller earned most valuable player honors for the game with 2.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles, pacing a Broncos pass rush that was able to sack Panthers quarterback Cam Newton seven times and hit him a total of 13 times. That same Broncos rush was able to sack Patriots quarterback Tom Brady four times and hit him 20 times, the most punishment any quarterback suffered this entire season.
Miller collected 2.5 sacks in that Patriots game as well, with his five postseason sacks adding to his regular season total of 11. Miller is on the verge of free agency and will certainly be slapped with a franchise tag should the Broncos be unable to re-sign him to a new deal before the March 1 deadline.
Last offseason the Miami Dolphins gave free-agent defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh a $114 million contract to earn the distinction as the league’s highest paid defender. Last summer, the Kansas City Chiefs gave outside linebacker Justin Houston a $101 million deal after they slapped him with a franchise tag. Going into this offseason, the only real question surrounding Miller’s contract status was whether his future deal would put him above Houston or whether he would make a play to beat out Suh’s deal and become the league’s newest most highly paid defender, a distinction that has changed hands each of the past three years.
It began when the Buffalo Bills gave defensive end Mario Williams a $96 million contract in 2012 as a free agent. Williams was able to hold onto that honor for a while until Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt got a new $100 million deal in September 2014. Then Suh broke the mold last March.
After his stellar postseason performances coupled with the fact that Miller is still in the prime of his career (he turns 27 in late March), it all likely gives him all the leverage he needs to try and beat out Suh’s deal that averages over $19 million per season, putting Miller in prime position to become the first non-quarterback in league history to sign a contract that averages $20 million per year.
Miller and the Broncos success over the past two games highlights one of the takeaways that we often seemingly have each and every February, that pressuring the quarterback matters in the NFL.
Broncos Highlight Why Pass Rush Matters in January
One of the narratives heading into the game was how much of a drop-off in production Newton suffered when effectively pressured. The one game during the regular season where Newton faced an abundant amount of pressure in 2015 came when the Atlanta Falcons defeated the Panthers in Week 16, which marked the latter’s only loss of the year until this past Sunday.
But it’s not just Newton that seemingly is effected negatively by pressure, as research suggests that pressure makes a difference in the outcomes of most postseason games.
Winning teams in this year’s postseason averaged 3.5 sacks and 8.3 hits on the quarterback per game, while losing teams averaged 2.2 sacks and 3.8 hits. Even if you were to discard the Broncos ridiculous 10 sacks and 33 hits over the past two weeks from the data pool for fear that it’s skewing the numbers too much, the averages for the nine other winning clubs still equal 3.1 sacks and 6.4 hits per playoff game.
Additionally using Pro Football Focus data to look at times when quarterbacks were under pressure, winning quarterbacks were only pressured on an average of 10.5 dropbacks while losing quarterbacks were pressured on 18.8 dropbacks.
Research into 2014’s postseason however doesn’t show as strong a distinction between winning and losing teams’ respective pass rushes. Winning teams averaged 2.5 sacks, 5.3 hits and 14.7 pressures last postseason, while losers averaged two sacks, 5.5 hits and 13.4 pressures, a relatively minor difference.
However one stat that stood out between winners and losers last January was how much more explosive winning teams were than their counterparts. Winning playoff teams averaged 4.6 plays of 20 or more yards per game last year, while losing teams average 2.8 such plays. That wasn’t quite the case for 2015, where winning playoff teams averaged 3.6 big plays and losers averaged 3.3.
That two-year data is indicative of observations I’ve made in the past that seem to suggest that teams earning success in the postseason tend to be explosive on offense and stingy on defense. If that latter stinginess comes in the form of a devastating pass rush, that’s ideal since that should help the most in cutting down the explosiveness of an opponent’s offense.
Big plays tend to come in the form of passes downfield with 83 percent of 2015’s 20-plus-yard plays being throws versus runs. And since downfield throws typically require longer developing routes from receivers, quarterbacks are forced to hold onto the ball longer. That of course means that a strong pass rush has an opportunity to significant disrupt those throws due to their ability to get to the quarterback more quickly.
This past year, the Panthers ranked 12th in the NFL with 64 plays of 20 or more yards, while the Broncos were tied for last place with just 52 such plays. While the Broncos sported the league’s best defense, the Panthers weren’t far behind with the third-ranked unit. That combination seemed likely to win the day, thus prompting my expectation that the Panthers would win Super Bowl 50. However the Broncos defense proved to be the superior of the two.
Panthers Failed to Capitalize on Big Plays
In the explosiveness category, both teams’ offenses generated four 20-plus-yard plays each in the Super Bowl. Carolina wasn’t quite able to capitalize on their scoring opportunities on the drives that included those big plays.The Panthers scored a touchdown on the same drive as their initial big play to start the second quarter, but were unable to capitalize on their subsequent big-play drives, particularly two critical ones in the third quarter.
After Newton hit wide receiver Ted Ginn on a deep crossing pattern for a 45-yard gain on the second play of the second half, eventually kicker Graham Gano was unsuccessful on a 44-yard field goal attempt to cap off the drive as the ball hit the right upright.
The Broncos generated a pair of big plays on the next drive with 25 and 22-yard grabs from wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to set up a 30-yard field goal from Brandon McManus.
To start the next drive, Newton hooked up with Corey Brown on first down for a 42-yard bomb. But four plays later, Newton rifled a throw over the middle to Ginn and the ball went through his hands into the waiting arms of Broncos safety T.J. Ward for an interception at the 10-yard line. Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert even stripped Ward after the turnover and Ginn had another chance to be a hero with the recovery, but Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan beat him to the loose ball, allowing the Broncos to keep possession at their seven-yard line.
The inability of the Panthers to capitalize on their big-play opportunities and the abundance of turnovers (four) was very reminiscent of something that plagued the Falcons throughout 2015.
Falcons Lack of Postseason Success Likely Caused By Deficiencies in Explosiveness and Defense
Speaking of the Falcons, I’m of the belief that one of the key reasons why they have struggled to garner postseason success since the arrival of quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008 is because of their inability to develop the necessary explosiveness on offense and stinginess on defense that the aforementioned data suggests helps in January.
Since 2008, the Falcons have generated 456 big plays on offense, which is the 10th lowest over that span. The 10 lowest ranked teams collectively have seven postseason wins, with more than half of them (four) coming from the New York Jets, who ranked as the fifth least explosive offense since 2008. Compare that to the 10 most explosive teams over the past eight years that collectively have 38 playoff wins.
One of the justifications for the dismissal of former Falcons head coach Mike Smith stemmed from this inability to generate more explosiveness on offense. While the 2014 Falcons offense was the most explosive group that Smith ever coached over his seven-year tenure, his core philosophy that emphasized discipline, ball control and mistake-free football basically was too conservative to thrive at the highest levels in today’s NFL.
An oversimplification would be to say that an offense that emphasizes big plays is one that is playing to win while the offense that Smith leaned towards was playing not to lose. While Smith’s style led to very consistent and generally good regular-season performances from the Falcons over the years, during the month of January when their level of play needed to be elevated to new heights, the Falcons too often came up short.
The hiring of Dan Quinn as Smith’s replacement seemed like a big step in the right direction to shifting that philosophy. Quinn served as the defensive coordinator for a Seahawks team that had been able to go to consecutive Super Bowls largely thanks to their explosive offense and top-ranked defense. However that doesn’t mean that Quinn will be any more successful than Smith in replicating that here in Atlanta.
Quinn has already helped engineer Falcons defensive improvement from the league’s worst defense in 2014 to one of that ranked 16th in 2015, yet the offensive improvement remains to be seen. However Quinn’s philosophy on that side of the ball seems to be leaning in the right direction.
Given that Ryan is not known for having the necessary “gunslinger mentality” to be a top vertical passer, the Falcons appear to be leaning heavily on their running game to open up the big plays in the passing game. The offense of play-caller Kyle Shanahan is one that builds its explosive plays off play action.
Essentially Quinn’s heart is in the right place, but the execution hasn’t quite caught up. The Falcons were tied for 24th in the league in terms of big plays in 2015, a significant drop-off from the eighth-ranked unit in 2014. Although to be fair to Shanahan, the Falcons ranked poorly in 2010 (32nd), 2012 (25th) and 2013 (29th), so it’s not as if he is alone in struggling to generate explosive plays in Atlanta.
Whether Quinn is ultimatley more successful in Atlanta than Smith was will depend heavily on if Shanahan’s ability to spark a more explosive offensive attack. It’s not as if we haven’t seen glimpses of an explosive Shanahan-led Falcons offense, as the team’s 17 big plays in the first four games of the season were tied for the seventh most during that span of games.
That explosive ability was spearheaded by wide receiver Julio Jones, who led the team with five such plays. But he also opened up opportunities for fellow receivers like Leonard Hankerson and Roddy White (three each). Things went into the tank for the Falcons when injuries started slowing Jones down thereafter as Hankerson also was mired by injuries and drops and White’s age and declining abilities prevented him from creating those opportunities on his own.
Falcons Have Offseason Need to Get More Explosive At Receiver
It’s why it’s imperative that the Falcons find more options this offseason that can generate explosive plays in the passing game besides Jones. A common criticism of this offense over recent years is that it is far too “Julio-centric,” and thus when he’s not playing his “A” game the Falcons as a unit become ordinary.
While the Falcons can certainly find a young, explosive wideout in this year’s draft, they may not have the luxury of waiting that long. Wide receivers tend to be more miss than hit when it comes to their ability to impact as rookies. This past year’s draft, which was considered to be a fairly strong group of receiver prospects, did not quite live up to expectations at the top of the draft. Wide receiver Amari Cooper, who was taken fourth overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, paced the draft class with 72 receptions. But the next six receivers off the board combined for 76 catches this past year, with half of them finishing the season on injured reserve.
If the team wants to get more explosive immediately, then finding a veteran in free agency is the most reliable avenue to fill that void. However, this offseason’s market isn’t likely to be rife with many explosive targets, limiting the Falcons options.
Cleveland Browns receiver Travis Benjamin would be a nice option given his experience playing in Shanahan’s offense in 2014, coupled with sub 4.4-second 40 speed that would be a welcome addition on the outside for the Falcons.
After Benjamin, there are few other potential free agents that jump out both as explosive playmakers as well as potentially reliable starters. Cincinnati’s Marvin Jones probably fits the latter category, but has never been known for his game-breaking ability. Jermaine Kearse (Seattle), Mohamed Sanu (Cincinnati) and Rueben Randle (N.Y. Giants) all flash playmaking abilities due to superior size, speed and athleticism, but have never quite put it all together to be more than guys that are ideally suited for the No. 3 role.
The Falcons may opt to “double dip” on multiple receivers in order to maximize the possibility that one of their new arrivals is able to spark their big-play potential across from Jones. That could also be in addition to targeting a prospect in the draft.
A huge question this offseason will be how effective are the Falcons in improving their explosive potential on offense given the relatively slimmer pickings in free agency and the draft. The Falcons have a critical need to infuse their wide receiver position in a year that doesn’t necessarily feature an abundance of talent. The 2014 and 2015 draft classes at wide receiver were considered unusually strong, yet the Falcons failed to capitalize by only adding Justin Hardy a year ago.
And while it would be too easy of a cop out to say that decisions of general manager Thomas Dimitroff are at fault for this predicament given the team’s extraordinary avoidance at drafting wide receivers over the past seven years, it does reiterate the point I made last week that there are ripple effects to personnel decisions. It’s less about assigning blame, but rather noting causality.
It’s just another point I brought up in last week’s column indicating why this upcoming offseason is very important for the Falcons. They don’t want to be in a position like they’ve been in the past where they seem to be trying to address the same holes on the roster year after year. Ideally, they’ll be able to solve the problem this offseason and not have to worry about it for years to come. Signing a free agent that can solve the short-term issues at wide receiver in conjunction with drafting a player that can fix those issues long-term is the ideal outcome of this offseason.
If a year from now, we’re able to say that Quinn’s regime was successful in that endeavor, then it’ll go a long way to indicating that he is the right man for the job. It may not indicate that at this time next year the Falcons will be playing in a Super Bowl, but it will mean that they will be one step closer to that eventual goal with well-deserved optimism to get there.