By Richard Janvrin
Like last year, the No. 1 seed for both the AFC and NFC will square off in the Super Bowl. In Super Bowl 49, it was the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, and this time around it will be the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers. When it comes to the battle of No. 1 seeds, the NFC has prevailed eight of the 11 times it has happened.
Although this storied season will end with the best from each conference, one matchup that cannot go unnoticed is the Panthers’second-ranked running game going up against the second-best 3-4 defensive end run-stopper in the league (since his return from suspension in Week 5)—Derek Wolfe of the Broncos.
Since Week 11, Wolfe has made at least a half of a sack in every game except for Week 13, and from Week 5 on (including playoffs), Wolfe is the fourth-best 3-4 defensive end, according to Pro Football Focus.
Regardless of his four-game suspension to open the season, Wolfe was rewarded for his stellar play with a hefty four-year, $36.7 million extension on January 15, 2016, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. This came at a perfect time, as it was the team’s off week after earning a first-round bye. This monster deal made Wolfe theseventh-highest-paid 3-4 defensive end in the NFL.
Wolfe was able to create pressure on Brady all game long by getting big pushes and exploding off the line. He also handled double-teams and even made some athletic efforts in trying to bat down balls thrown in his direction. Every little bit of this will help in containing mobile Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.Over the Cap
Just one week after signing his extension, Wolfe was tasked with what was one of his team’s toughest challenges all season—stopping Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. However, in just the first half, Wolfe had amassed four tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and three hits on Brady.
This did not go unnoticed. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports went as far as saying that Wolfe may be the league’s most improved player:
Wolfe’s skill set is up there with the best of his 3-4 defensive end colleagues, but Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar deserve some credit.
Before joining the Broncos this past season, Kollar was on the Houston Texans staff, where he worked with another elite 3-4 defensive end—J.J. Watt—from 2009-14.
After not even getting an interview in the 2014 offseason, Phillips’ 3-4, one-gap defensive scheme has assisted in propelling Wolfe to become one of the better defensive ends in football. As Chris Wesseling of NFL Network noted, he has begun drawing comparisons to Watt.
In a recent interview with Jocks vs. Geniuses, when asked about game-plan strategy for containing Newton, Wolfe said that the team (at that point) had not started game-planning but figured a quarterback spy would be needed because Newton can “beat you with his feet” and the Broncos need to “keep him in the pocket.”
From Week 5 on, the Broncos faced numerous mobile quarterbacks, including Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts quarterback. They ran for 33, 31 and 34 yards, respectively. Of course, Newton is a different animal, leading all quarterbacks in rushes, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns during the regular season.
Stopping the run is Wolfe’s game. Since Week 5 (and including the playoffs), Wolfe leads the league in stops in run defense, has the second-most snaps in run defense and trails Fletcher Cox of the Philadelphia Eagles by just one tackle in run defense with 41.
On the season, the Panthers offensive line ranked third in terms of pass blocking but just 20th in run blocking. Carolina’s offensive line features tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers, guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell, and center Ryan Kalil. Kalil, Turner and Norwell all ranked within the top 10 at their respective positions overall, whereas Oher and Remmers ranked 39th or lower.
Wolfe will likely be seeing a lot of Remmers and Turner. This is where he becomes key to helping the Broncos secure a Super Bowl title—pressuring Newton and making critical stops in the running game.
If Wolfe is able to penetrate and pressure the offensive line while handling Remmers and Turner, the Panthers may be forced to make some changes, including max protection.
Not only would max protection take away some passing game options for Newton, but it could also make him slightly more predictable. For example, if Newton is in shotgun by himself because of this, you take away the potential for a read-option play or a handoff to running back Jonathan Stewart.
For a quarterback that totaled 45 touchdowns on the season, eliminating even one component of Newton’s versatile arsenal will be critical in the Broncos’ hopes of securing a title. If Wolfe wins his initial one-on-one matchups on the offensive line, the Panthers will have no choice but to use extra personnel to contain him.
With core defensive players such as linebackers Von Miller, Brandon Marshall, Danny Trevathan and defensive lineman Malik Jackson set to hit free agency, this may be the last time we see this Denver defensive unit together.
It’s now or never for this Broncos group, and it starts with Wolfe.
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