Super Bowl's Broncos, Panthers excel at defense differently

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A matchup between two elite defenses that dominate in divergent ways. (WPVI)

Sometime late last season or early this season - depends on whom you ask - Josh Norman and the Carolina Panthers' other defensive backs were heading toward a drill as part of their weekly "Turnover Circuit," when assistant coach Eric Washington yelled out a spur-of-the-moment greeting.

"Hey, here come the thieves!"

It was meant to be funny, using that word to refer to a group of guys whose job description includes trying to steal the ball. It stuck, and the members of the secondary now own gray T-shirts, courtesy of safety Roman Harper, that refer to "Thieves Avenue," the name they adopted for their section of the locker room.

"The next time they came over, I didn't say it, and one of the guys was like, 'Hey, what's the deal?' And so it just kind of caught on," said Washington, who coaches Carolina's defensive line. "It took on a life of its own and it's a big part of our identity in terms of creating turnovers and trying to take the football away."

That identity helped NFL MVP Cam Newton and the rest of the Panthers make it all the way to the Super Bowl against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, a matchup between two elite defenses that dominate in divergent ways.

If rules changes and offensive innovations have made pro football a decidedly "Who can score more?" sport, it's noteworthy that a pair of clubs boasting such capable defenses made it to the season's final game. It's the first time in 50 Super Bowls that the team that led the league in takeaways (Carolina, 39) met the team that allowed the fewest yards (Denver, 283.1 per game), according to STATS.

"Their defense is built a little different, and the way they end up doing stuff is different. But it all turns out to be the same: You always want to get as many turnovers as you can and hold the opponent to as few first downs as you can," Broncos defensive line coach Bill Kollar said. "And these are two really good defenses that do both of those things."

The Panthers use a 4-3 formation, blitz on only about a quarter of opponents' passing downs but do so effectively, and - here's the key stat - thrive on takeaways, leading the NFL with 39 in the regular season before tacking on another nine in the postseason.

The Broncos use a 3-4 formation, blitz on about 40 percent of passing downs, had a league-best 52 sacks, and - here's the key stat - led the NFL in opponents' yards per rush (3.3) and yards per pass attempt (6.2, tied with - guess who? - Carolina).

Denver is only the fifth team in the past half-century to rank No. 1 in both of those categories over a full season, according to STATS, and they shut down two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers and four-time champ Tom Brady's New England Patriots en route to the AFC title.

They really knocked Brady around, sacking and harassing him throughout the game two weeks ago.

"Denver's got a great defense. They're fun to watch. They fly around. They're physical. They get after the passer," said Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who returned an interception for a touchdown in each of the NFC champions' two playoff games. "And we try to do the same thing. We've got guys on every level of our defense that take a lot of pride in what they do."

Both secondaries carry colorful nicknames (the Broncos' unit goes by "No Fly Zone"), and both rosters are stacked with All-Pros and established stars.

The Panthers have Norman at cornerback, Kuechly and Thomas Davis at linebacker, and Kawann Short at defensive tackle. Any discussion of the Broncos begins with pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Their lockdown secondary includes Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. at cornerback, and T.J. Ward at safety.

The two defensive coordinators are talented, too: Denver's Wade Phillips and Carolina's Sean McDermott.

"They'll pressure you. They'll play a lot of (zone). They'll do a lot of things. But the bottom line is they're good across the board. Their front is very physical," Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said about the Panthers. "We'll have our hands full."

Panthers center Ryan Kalil, among the offensive linemen charged with providing time for Newton, said preparing for Denver's defense "makes for a tough film week."

"Different defenses that you scheme against sometimes have incredible talent, but the scheme is very bland. Other teams, they don't quite have the (same) talent as other teams and they have incredible schemes and exotic looks and things that really make you work all week long," Kalil said. "This is a team that has both of those things, and I think it's why they're so dangerous."

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