It might not have been the most impactful moment of the night, but it will certainly go down as the most memorable play from Super Bowl 50. It sealed the game for the Broncos. It provided fodder for all those waiting in weeds for their moment to pounce. It’s a play that will be re-lived and replayed for years to come, one that provided a perfect microcosm of how the Denver Broncos were able to pull of the 24-10 upset over the Panthers.
By now, we’re all familiar with the play. It jumped off the screen Sunday night and we’ve each probably watched the Vine of it at least 100 times since.
With 4:14 left in the game, the Panthers faced a 3rd-and-9 on their own 29-yard line. They were trailing 16-10 and needed a first down to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive.
Cam Newton surveyed the Denver defense and barked out calls. He had three receivers lined up in a tight formation to his left. His favorite target, Greg Olsen, was in the slot on his right and running back Mike Tolbert was standing just a few feet away from his right hip.
The Broncos had two safeties lined up deep, with six defenders up at the line of scrimmage and one shading Olsen.
Newton, and the Panthers’ offense, had failed to get anything going all night. Carolina’s defense had done its part, but the offense had yet to figure out a way to slow down Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and the rest of the Broncos’ relentless pass rush. Two weeks ago in the AFC Championship Game, that group had transformed a cocky, confident and precise Tom Brady into a jittery wreck. Now it was doing the same thing to the man who just 24 hours earlier had been named NFL MVP.
Newton took the snap and took a five-step drop. Von Miller exploded off the line and went right at the chest of Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers, a 26-year-old journeyman who went undrafted in 2012 and who, according to Pro Football Focus, was the 60th best offensive tackle in the NFL this season.
Remmers had been tasked with slowing down Miller Sunday night, and to that point in the game, it wasn’t going well. All season Miller had been a handful for right tackles. He pressured opposing quarterbacks 70 times during the season when rushing from that side of the of the line (via Pro Football Focus), and Super Bowl 50 was no different.
First, there was the strip sack and fumble in the first quarter, which gave the Broncos an early 10-0 lead and, more importantly, seemed to spook Newton and his teammates.
But Miller didn’t stop there. He used his speed and strength to get by Remmers for that sack and score. Later on he’d go to his footwork and technique to get to Cam again.
On the play that sealed the fate of both teams, however, Miller was almost too late. Newton dropped back to his own 15-yard line and brought the ball behind his right ear to throw. His target was locked and he was ready to unload. Miller had beaten Remmers around the edge, but the tackle was hanging strong. He kept his hands on Miller and was trying to drive him past Newton.
But Cam never felt Miller’s presence, despite getting hit all game, and he never stepped up in the pocket to avoid contact.
Miller’s arms, when outstretched, measure more than six-and-a-half feet, and he used every one of those inches to get his left hand on the ball. It fell loose, and suddenly the Panthers’ season hung in the balance. A Broncos recovery would seal the game.
The bouncing ball came to a stop at around the 18-yard line. DeMarcus Ware fell to the ground and tried to reel it in with his claw. Newton lumbered towards the ball as well. Ware never gained control and Newton, it seemed, was in perfect position to fall on it and at least save the Panthers’ 50 yards in field position, and maybe some points as well. The ball was right there for the taking. Newton bent his knees and then…he froze.
The ball instead got kicked backwards to the 4-yard line where Denver safety T.J. Ward fell on it. A few plays later C.J. Anderson was pushing his way into the end zone and the Broncos were celebrating a 22-10 lead.
Miller would finish the game with 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and led Denver in solo tackles. He was the best player on the field and deserving the MVP award he later earned.
Miller was the heart of a Denver defense that continued its dominant run. The Broncos held the Panthers to 10 points. They sacked Newton seven times and pressured him on 42.9 percent of his dropbacks, the highest number of his career, per ESPN Stats & Information. They forced four turnovers and scored as many touchdowns as Denver’s offense.
Carolina seemed ill prepared for the Broncos attack. At no point did offensive coordinator Mike Shula go to a spread formation, which would have made it easier for Newton and the Carolina offensive line to diagnose where the pressure was coming from. At no point did he have his running backs or tight ends chip Denver’s edge rushers. The early injury to Jonathan Stewart had a huge impact in the game, and Carolina’s start. Despite coming back in to play, and score, Stewart’s brief absence had Carolina on tilt, and Mike Tolbert’s two fumbles, one lost, didn’t help. The Panthers also struggled in the passing game once Philly Brown went out with a concussion. They just had no answers for Denver’s secondary without speed on the outside, and that allowed the front seven—led by Miller—to attack Newton.
Whatever the reason, though, Shula also kept everything vanilla. All the fancy play calling and misdirections that the Panthers had ridden to a 15-1 regular season were nowhere to be seen. Denver’s defenders even acknowledged being surprised by the Panthers’ game plan.
But as great as Miller was, most of the talk Monday, and for the next few weeks and, likely, until he’s able to win a Super Bowl, will focus around Newton’s decision to not dive for the ball. At the moment we can only speculate as to why he froze. Was it because his left shoulder was injured – a casualty of all those vicious blows – and his natural instinct was to protect it, or did he simply quit on his team? Perhaps he thought it was a forward pass. Or maybe all the hits had him feeling a bit punchy.
Whatever the reason, it was the greatest example of how flustered Newton was all evening and how un-Cam like he seemed. It’s easy to put all the blame on him, to call out the cocky athlete for giving up on his team instead of focusing on why Newton struggled, on how for the first time all season he wasn’t the best player on the field.
That title belonged to Miller, who for the second-straight game put the Broncos on his back. Quarterbacks get all the shine but every now and then a player from a different position separates himself from the pack. On Sunday Von Miller did, and now because of him Peyton Manning gets to add one more trophy to the mantel.