The Carolina Panthers' offensive line was a work in progress and there is only one starter left from the Panthers' starting five at the beginning of the 2014 season, center Ryan Kalil. There was a great deal of growing pains last year with two rookie guards in Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner being inserted as starters as well as unknown Mike Remmers, who was signed off the St. Louis Rams' practice squad midway through last year.
That experience last year, plus the addition of left tackle Michael Oher, has allowed this group to develop one of the better offensive lines in the league. both protecting Cam Newton in the pocket and opening running lanes for the running backs.
Over the first nine games of the 2014 season, the Panthers' gave up 33 sacks but when Remmers was put into the starting lineup they only gave up nine sacks over the final eight games. Fast forward to this year and the Panthers gave up the 11th fewest sacks and to this point in the season have given up 33 sacks in 18 games.
The run game has even seen a boost with the Panthers rushing for an average of 142.6 yards per game, which was the second highest total in the league, and was over 15 yards more per game than last year's total.
The Panthers' front five will have a tall task ahead of them with this Broncos' defense. They not only can get after the quarterback, finishing first in the league in sacks with 52, but finished as the third best run defense, only allowing 83.6 yards per game on the ground.
Trai Turner believes this is the best the Panthers' will face all season, "I think they have some very capable guys that can rush the passer and some guys in the secondary that can definitely cover. We are just going to have to do our job on all phases. When we’re running the ball, we’re going to run. When we’re passing, we’re going to pass. Go out there and execute our kind of style of football and just play the game.”
Left guard Andrew Norwell was asked this week what challenges this Broncos' defense brings to this game and he said, “They bring toughness. They finish every play. They work their techniques which we can see on film every day. They finish every play. They are great on the pass-rushers. Their two defensive ends and their outside linebackers are great at rushing the passers. We just have to attack him and execute our plays.”
The Broncos' outside linebackers, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, certainly get a great deal of attention and rightfully so as they have done an excellent job getting to the quarterback. These two combined sacked the opposing quarterback 18.5 times and in two postseason games have four sacks between them.
One of the reasons these two have been successful this year, according to Mike Remmers, is because they have a complete skill set where they can beat a player with skill and power.
“Honestly both of them have a very, very large package when it comes to their different moves," Remmers said. "They have a lot of different stuff. They have speed, they have strength, they can bull rush, they have quick, inside moves, they have everything. You just have to be ready for anything. A lot of guys, a lot of teams you play, they kind of have one or two moves that they go to. But these guys really have it all.”
However, these are not the only two players this offensive line has to worry about as Malik Jackson presents his own set of challenges. Ryan Kalil talked about what the Broncos' defensive end brings to the table, "I think he’s good. I think he’s a good player. He’s a big guy, he’s physical, and they’re all great pass rushers. They do a good job. I think the biggest thing, and especially him, they do a good job getting off blocks that I think, that’s important. Some guys can’t get off blocks. Those guys get off blocks and they make plays.”
The Panthers' though will be up to the challenge on Sunday as they have faced some of the better pass rushers this year and done an excellent job of not allowing them to impact the game. During the regular season they face nine players in the Top 20 in sacks 10 times (they faced Cameron Jordan twice). This group finished the regular season with 97.5 sacks but collectively they only sacked Cam Newton five times.
The Broncos do have an excellent group of pass rushers however the Panthers shown on a number of occasions that they know how to slow down some of the best pass rushers in the league. That couldn't be said last year at this time but those growing pains have helped solidify a unit that is playing some of their best football at the perfect time.