DENVER – The Denver Broncos’ defense was getting gutted by Cam Newton on Thursday night.
That’s not what happened the last time the Broncos faced the Carolina Panthers’ mammoth quarterback. Denver dictated Newton’s game in Super Bowl 50 seven months ago and it completely startled the 2015 NFL MVP, making him look as uncomfortable as he has since he was the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2011.
But in the first half of the 2016 NFL season in this rematch of Denver’s dominant 24-10 Super Bowl win seven months ago, Newton showed zero signs of being the quarterback Denver constantly harassed and sacked 6 times on its way to a third Super Bowl title.
Newton shredded the Broncos as Carolina took a 17-7 halftime lead.
Even though their offense was being led by Trevor Siemian, who threw his first NFL pass Thursday nigh,t and not the legendary Peyton Manning, the Denver defensive players knew if they were going to make it a comeback victory, it was going to have to be their unit that carried the load.
Just like in Santa Clara in February and it resulted in another Denver win over Carolina. This time, it was 21-20 as Carolina’s Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field goal in the final seconds ending a valiant final drive by Newton.
“We all messed up in the first half,” Denver star cornerback Chris Harris said. “The coaches messed up, the players messed up. We came out in the second half and did better.”
Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and his unit just had a simple goal for the second half.
“We just got our stuff together,” second-year pass-rusher Shane Ray said.
Added defensive end Jared Crick: “There was no yelling or finger point. We just knew we had to get to (Newton). You start hitting a guy and things start to happen.”
In the first half, Carolina had short shotgun drops and it seemed to have success with a maximum protection scheme, especially where Von Miller was playing. Miller, of course, personally terrorized Newton in the Super Bowl with 2.5 sacks and two stripped fumbles, one of which he scored a touchdown on and the other set up a touchdown, earning him Super Bowl MVP honors.
In the first half, Miller was not a factor. Yet, at the end of the game, Miller was dancing to Michael Jackson songs at his locker for a reason.
The Broncos found their success against Newton.
In the first half, Newton completed 11 of 17 pass attempts for 111 yards and a touchdown pass. He also had 36 rushing yards on 6 carries and a touchdown. Newton was having his way with Denver as he was 5-for-5 on third down passing conversions and the Panthers were 6-of-7 on third down overall.
Denver registered no sacks in the first half. Denver pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware said finding a way to get to Newton in the second half was key.
“We knew we had to start hitting him and keep hitting him,’ Ware said. “So that’s what we did … I think it was more that we adjusted and found a way to get to them than anything Carolina did. We just became us … We make the plays we supposed to make when it most mattered and that was in the second half.”
Ware said he thought Denver’s defensive fortunes started to change when it bottled up the Carolina run attack early in the third quarter. He said he thought Carolina ran better in the first half than it did during the Super Bowl. The Panthers had 118 yards rushing on 27 carries in the Super Bowl but never got into much of a rhythm.
In the first half Thursday night, Carolina had 99 rushing yards on 18 carries. Carolina could only muster 26 rushing yards in its first two short drives of the second half. It was then, when Denver start putting heat on Newton.
“We try to establish ourselves on every play,’ Miller said. “That’s kind of what happened there in the second half.”
Denver ended up sacking Newton three times in the second half, but it applied major pressure on him, especially in the final, hectic drives of the game. Newton completed just seven passes for 83 yards in the second half and had just 18 yards on the ground.
While Newton looked like the reigning Super Bowl MVP in the first half, he looked much more like the Super Bowl Newton in the second half.
“I think we (frustrated) him,” Ray said. “I wasn’t thinking about the Super Bowl out there, but we were playing like it.”
While he failed to beat Denver again, Newton certainly showed his toughness and he got up after hit after hit, including a head hit by Denver safety Darian Stewart on the final drive. A battered Newton made enough drive-saving plays to put Carolina in position to win, but Gano’s field goal attempt from 50 yards missed in the final seconds.
“That guy kept getting up,” Ware said. “He’s one tough, athletic guy.”
Newton was much more professional and composed in his post-game press conference Thursday night than his infamous sulk fest after the Super Bowl.
“The Broncos are defending Super Bowl champions for a reason,” Newton said. “We had a chance to put it away and we didn’t.”
The Broncos believe Newton didn’t get it done because they wouldn’t let him.
“I’m excited,” Harris said. “We played like crap and we still won … We found a way.”
And it all began with stopping Newton in the second half.