There will be about 150 plays from scrimmage during the Super Bowl on Sunday. While all of them will matter, about a dozen and a half of them will be decisive. It is likely that Carolina plays on third down with five or more yards to go will be among those decisive moments. If the Broncos can contain Cam Newton on those plays as well as he has been contained all year, they will have a better shot a pulling off the upset.
Newton has excelled in most situations this year, a performance that will almost certain earn him the league MVP honor when the awards are announced tonight. But one area where he has struggled is on third down with five or more yards to go.
In 2015, Newton completed 46 of 91 passes in such situations, a completion percentage of 50.5. Of the 37 quarterbacks who attempted 40 or more third and long passes Newton ranked 35th. (h/t to ProFootballReference.com for crunching the numbers).
Newton also took 11 sacks on third and long, costing 100 yards in losses. When you include the sacks he averaged 5.8 yards gained every time he dropped back to pass.
Not only is third and long something of a problem area for the Panthers, it’s a situation that the top-ranked Broncos handle well. They racked up 16 third and long sacks, more than all but two other teams in the league.
The challenge for the Broncos will be getting Carolina into third and long. They average 4.1 yards per run on first down so they frequently get most of what they need to stay out of bad situations right there.
But the Broncos were very good at forcing third and long situations this year. In fact, their opponents had an average of 7.8 yards to go on all third downs, the longest in the league.
So while you’re watching the game, note what happens when Carolina gets in third and long. If the Broncos get a sack or force an incompletion, asserting their strength against a Panthers weak spot, that’s a big win for them. The more the Newton and the Panthers can succeed where they have had some problems, the more it will be their kind of day.