Analysis: Panthers zones might be too much for Manning

One of the elements that has made the Carolina defense so special is linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Another, though, is the zone based defense that the Panthers employ, which has helped the likes of Josh Norman, a fifth round draft pick in 2012, become an NFL superstar.

And it’s one of the toughest things Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will have to deal with on Sunday. Something that is hard to imagine he’ll do successfully.

For those not familiar with football, a zone defense is based around certain players being responsible for particular areas of the field instead of particular players.

When an offensive man roams into a players’ zone, that defender rolls with him until the offensive player exits that zone.

The Panthers are arguably the best team in the NFL at executing the concept, which is older than football, and used in most sports.

In baseball, the zone of a shortstop is generally second base to the center of second and third base. In basketball, the zone of a center is the 10 feet surrounding the basket.

So on and so forth.

What makes Carolina so good at employing the defense is the mental speed at which the roster is capable of playing. The instincts and intellect of the players, some of whom are older and not near as quick as the youngsters on the squad, carries through better than any athletic trait they might have.

Take linebacker Thomas Davis, who will be playing Sunday with a broken arm. At 32-year-old, he isn’t quick by any athletic standard. But his mental ability and trust in what he sees, makes all the difference.

Norman, who ran a 4.66 second 40-yard dash at the 2012 NFL Combine, is slow by the standard of an NFL defensive back. But he stars in the zone defense thanks to his brain, and ability to play the ball aggressively.

It all starts with Kuechly, though, the defensive captain.

He’ll make sure the defense knows the play, but also has the authority to change the play at the line of scrimmage, just like Manning yelling “Omaha.” Kuechly said:

“There will be some stuff where I will have the opportunity to check. Maybe it’s a defense here or a defense there, depending on the look or formation, but for the most part, we are going to do what we do and try to play our best football. If there are some checking and changing that needs to be made, then we are going to make it.”

Manning’s arm strength is limited, something the veteran quarterback has acknowledged, and the Broncos will likely create some plays that they think give them the best shot at success.

But it’s doubtful they come up with enough. Norman brought along a certain sign that might be displayed after the game, a sign he talked about Monday:

“Darn right, we brought it. It’s sitting right there up outside our lockers. We have a group on the side where it’s just our alley, our avenue. It’s not something I would say where ‘Thieves Ave’ sticks with us. No, ‘Thieves Ave’ doesn’t stick with us. We are thieves on Thieves Ave. We have a whole street with nothing but DBs on it.”

The film says that Norman is correct. It’s something the Broncos will have major trouble with during Super Bowl 50.


Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.