Whoever coined the phrase “defense wins championships” must be thrilled with Super Bowl 50.
The Broncos ranked first in total defense (283.1 yards allowed per game) and fourth in scoring defense (18.5 points allowed per game) during the regular season, while the Panthers were sixth-best by both measures (322.9 and 19.2, respectively). However, Carolina far outpaced Denver with a league-best 39 take-aways compared to the Broncos’ 27, which tied for seventh in the NFL.
Denver runs defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme, and Carolina counters with a 4-3 base. Read on for a breakdown of the defenses by position group.
The best D-lineman for either team is Kawann Short, the Panthers’ second team All-Pro defensive tackle. During a breakthrough campaign, Short notched 11.0 sacks, forced three fumbles and batted down four passes. He has a pair of postseason sacks and a forced fumble, too.
Next to Short on the interior is Star Lotulelei, a solid if unspectacular D-tackle. Their backups, Kyle Love and Dwan Edwards, combined for 4.0 sacks.
Bracketing the Carolina line are a five-man rotation of defensive ends, led by Charles Johnson. Although Johnson spent time on injured reserve during the season and tallied only one sack before the playoffs, he has two plus a forced fumble in the postseason.
Mario Addison led Panthers D-ends with 6.0 sacks, followed by Kony Ealy’s 5.0. Early-season acquisition Jared Allen, one of the best pass rushers of all-time, had 2.0 of his 136.0 career sacks this season. Ryan Delaire added 2.5 sacks.
A pair of standout defensive ends, Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe, lead a strong Broncos line. Although neither has forced a fumble this season, they have 5.0 and 5.5 sacks, respectively.
Jackson has a knack for batting passes at the line, tallying seven this season.
Wolfe is playing especially well this postseason with a pair of sacks, one in each game. His sack total may have been greater had he not missed the season’s first four games due to suspension.
Nose tackle Sylvester Williams chipped in three sacks while helping clog the middle.
Perhaps the best player on either team is Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who has the most tackles by a wide margin since entering the NFL in 2012. He’s an all-around talent who has improved his weakest area, pass coverage, and has returned interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive playoff games.
Fellow first-team All-Pro selection Thomas Davis’ status bears monitoring. The outside linebacker broke his arm in the NFC Championship Game but has maintained that he will play Sunday. Given that he’s playing at a high level after three ACL tears in his career, he’s capable of pulling it off.
A.J. Klein and Shaq Thompson can be expected to be in on a few plays as well, especially if Davis isn’t on the field.
Denver has an elite linebacker of its own in pass rusher Von Miller. He has 60.0 sacks in five seasons, including 11.0 plus four forced fumbles this season to earn first-team All-Pro honors. His 2.5 sacks in the AFC Championship Game illustrate his game-changing ability.
Opposite Miller is DeMarcus Ware, like Allen an all-time great at getting to the quarterback. He finished the regular season with 7.5 sacks and added 1.5 more during the playoffs.
Shaquil Barrett (5.5 sacks) and Shane Ray (4.0 sacks) could make their presence felt as well on the outside.
Inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall each tallied 100-plus tackles, with Marshall in on eight tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Panthers cornerback Josh Norman was a revelation this season. After earning NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September, teams largely stopped throwing in his direction. He still managed to finish seventh in passes defended (18) and haul in four interceptions as a first-team All-Pro.
Injuries have ravaged the other Carolina corners. With Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere lost to injury, they have been replaced by Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan, a former All-Pro who came out of retirement midseason.
Free safety Kurt Coleman has shown great instincts this season, finishing tied for second in the NFL with seven interceptions. Between Nov. 15 and Dec. 13, he picked off a pass in five consecutive games. He’s joined by serviceable strong safety Roman Harper.
The Broncos have the better group of cornerbacks on the whole, however. Both Chris Harris Jr., a second-team All-Pro selection, and Aqib Talib will be problematic for Carolina’s receivers on the outside, and Bradley Roby is among the best nickel corners in the league.
Talib leads the NFL in postseason passes defended (4) and had 13 during the regular season. Talib and Harris combined for three pick-6s this season.
Denver’s safeties aren’t as formidable. Between starters T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart, only Stewart picked off a pass this season. However, the did combine for three forced fumbles.