An Early Super Bowl 50 Breakdown of the Panthers’ Defense

Posted by Aaron . on January 28, 2016 in

If you watched the AFC Championship on Sunday, you saw that the Denver Broncos have a defense that pours pressure onto the passer, hounding him into an early dump-off or a poor decision, if not a sack. That was one reason why the Broncos knocked Tom Brady down 20 times and picked him off 3 times, in addition to the four sacks.

When: Sunday, February 7, 2015
Kickoff: 6:30 PM ET
Where: Santa Clara, CA
Stadium: Levi’s Stadium
Spread: Panthers -5
Moneyline: Carolina -220 vs Denver +190
Game Total: 45
Watch: CBS
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In the NFC Championship, though, you saw a Carolina Panthers’ defense that does not suffocate the opposition on its way to high defensive efficiency. Instead, they simply take the ball away, over and over again. During the regular season, the Panthers ended opposing teams’ drives with an interception about 12 percent of the time, best in the NFL. They took the ball away from their opponents 39 times, good for #1 in the NFL, and they scored 148 points on those turnovers. Against Arizona, the Panthers took the ball away seven times, once on special times and six when the Cardinals were on offense. Those seven turnovers were the most any team had committed in a postseason game since 2001, when Green Bay committed eight turnovers in their postseason loss to the St. Louis Rams.

The five captains of the Carolina Panthers.

If you take the postseason into account, the Panthers have added almost 10 points per game to their net margin of victory because of all of those takeaways. The next best team only adds about 7.9 points per game to that margin with turnovers. During the regular season, the Panthers returned six of those 39 turnovers for touchdowns on the same play, and they repeated that feat in the postseason, as Luke Kuechly returned interceptions for touchdowns against Seattle in the divisional round and again in the NFC Championship against Arizona. When the Panthers aren’t returning turnovers for touchdowns, though, they are using them to set up short fields for the offense.

The talk about the Carolina and the Denver defenses — both elite units during the regular season this year — raises the question as to whether a defense can win a championship. Last year, when the Patriots upset the Legion of Boom with a shocking interception as the clock was winding down, they were the exception. Between 2007 and 2013, only three of the teams that went on to win the Super Bowl were in the top 10 in the NFL for offensive efficiency during the regular season. However, all but two of them were in the top 10 in the NFL in defensive efficiency — and three of them were ranked in the top two.

This is a surprising trend, given that the current fashion in the league is to feature high-scoring offenses that shatter records. The numbers that offenses put up week in and week out are eye-popping, with quarterbacks throwing for more yards than ever before and point totals increasing as time goes by. However, this Super Bowl features the #1 and #2 defenses in the NFL. So while Denver has gotten a lot more press about their defense, the next most efficient unit will be across the field from them.