Barnwell's Super Bowl preview: Denver faces a distinct threat

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Updated: February 4, 2016

11:34 AM ET

Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware spent the AFC Championship Game terrorizing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. They combined for three sacks and 11 of Denver’s 20 quarterback knockdowns, a season high for any defense in any one game this year. It was a perfect storm of opportunity in a wildly favorable matchup: The Broncos needed to get pressure with as few players as possible and had a pair of star edge rushers matched up against tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon, who offered precious little resistance.

Super Bowl 50 would seem to present a similar opportunity. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers have greatly exceeded expectations as Carolina’s starting tackle combination this season, but on paper, they shouldn’t be anything resembling a match for Denver’s star duo. But it’s not that simple. The Panthers make it as difficult for edge rushers to impact games as any team in football by virtue of their imaginative, devastating rushing attack. It’s not that the Panthers can’t block Miller and Ware; it’s that they may not need to whatsoever. How Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips employs his two dominant edge rushers ended up deciding the AFC; two weeks later, it may similarly determine who takes home the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Reading is fundamental

For an offense that’s regarded as an old-school, blood-and-guts running attack, the Panthers have quietly put together one of the more diverse and modern offenses in the game. They’re the apartment with the exposed brick walls from the turn of the century across from a Sub-Zero refrigerator. That began with former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who mixed a power running attack with traditional concepts with some of the read-option concepts Cam Newton executed during his time at Auburn. And after Chudzinski left for the Browns, quarterbacks coach Mike Shula took over and further expanded the playbook. Carolina does as much to trip up opposing defenses as anybody in football.

That’s not to say the Panthers can’t line up in the I-formation and run you over. Watch Jonathan Stewart‘s 59-yard run to open the game against Seattle and you’ll see that the Panthers are totally capable of blowing up teams in a traditional manner. Even here, there’s a little bit of extra misdirection as part of this traditional counter, with fullback Mike Tolbert (35) feigning that he’s going to block to the right side before following the pulling guard to a surprised K.J. Wright. Stewart is patient in the hole, Tolbert makes the block at the point of attack, and left guard Andrew Norwell (68) decides to go for a combo bonus by blocking three different Seahawks. Nothing too fancy in here.

The strength of Carolina’s running game isn’t what it does under center, though. What makes the Panthers’ running game so unique and special, instead, is what they do out of the shotgun with their zone-read looks. The numbers tell you most of the story here: