In Denver—and really across the nation—all the talk surrounding Thursday night's NFL season opener is about the Denver Broncos new quarterback, Trevor Siemian. It's a great storyline, of course, seventh-round, no-name quarterback takes over for a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer in a rematch of the game that sent the legend off into the sunset.
On the other side of the matchup, a lot of the talk has surrounded Cam Newton and the "revenge factor," and people are quick to mention the Panthers and their 18 returning starters. What may surprise some, though, is that three of the four missing starters come from the Panthers' secondary and replacing two veteran corners—including Josh Norman—is two rookies.
“They’re going to play their defense, you know,” said head coach Gary Kubiak, regarding Carolina’s inexperienced corners, with Norman gone. “It’s kind of like us, we’ve got a rookie quarterback, in a lot of ways, but we’re going to go run our offense. Their defense was one of the top in football last year. I told you guys that their front seven is as good as I’ve ever coached against so we’ve both got some young players heading out there Thursday night, but it’s about the team. We’ve got to stay focused on our team.”
“They’re both talented. They’re both long, and they can run," added offensive coordinator Rick Dennison of the rookies. "They’re around the ball. I like to look at the scheme and overall what’s going on. They’ve got some great players, so it’s kind of hard to focus on those two corners when you look at the guys up front. We’ll do all that we can. We have to find a good mix of run and pass and keep them off balance.”
The youth at quarterback and cornerbacks are certainly an interesting theme in Thursday Night’s matchup. With that inexperience, Kubiak will have to decide how much freedom to give Trevor Siemian against Carolina’s tenacious ‘D.'
“We have to give him freedom,” said the coach. “We’ve got to let him play. Obviously, when you’re talking about a Hall of Famer [Manning], that package may be a little bit bigger, but Trevor’s a smart kid, and that’s one of the reasons he’s got himself in this position because he’s able to handle a lot. It’s going to be up to him to get us in the right situations, and we also have to help him, too, and keep him in the right situations.”
A matchup of young corners against an inexperienced quarterback puts the onus on the trigger man on offense. As it'll be up to Siemian to challenge them.
Demaryius Thomas, the newly named offensive captain, believes in his new QB’s ability to do just that.
“I look forward to it. He’s talented. He can play,” said Thomas. “He’s mobile, and he can throw the ball. I really don’t know what they’re going to do because it’s his first game, first time being in the huddle as a real game. We shall see once we get going. They might throw some different things at him. I’m sure they’re going to play different than when they played us when we had Peyton. I look forward to it, and I’m excited for it.”
Thomas also spoke on Siemian’s freedom to make pre-snap adjustments on the offense.
“He’s a smart kid,” said DT. “He’s been playing the game, but he hasn’t played in the NFL. It’s a little different. He has a lot of guys on the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball that has his back. We trust him to make the right call and whatever call that will be we are going to do our best to make it work.”
While Thomas will certainly want to improve on his Super Bowl performance Thursday night, he’s not taking anything for granted. Regardless of the inexperience across from him at corner.
“It’s tough because not only will the front seven keep you running a lot,” explained No. 88. “But most times it’s a lot of zone, having done so much man in the past couple of years. They are going to put them in good positions. They are going to be able to make plays and have help underneath. I really don’t know what they are going to do. We are just going to go out and do whatever we have to do as an offense.”
“I don’t take anyone lightly. Sometimes the young guys are the ones that are out trying to prove themselves," added DT's partner in crime, Emmanuel Sanders of Panthers' corners. "They’re trying to make a name for themselves. Those guys are probably over there thinking like, ‘Man, I’m facing Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. This is my opportunity to go out and show the league, hey, take me seriously.’ I’m always going to bring my ‘A’ game. I don’t take anyone lightly because it’s the National Football League, everybody is good. I’m definitely going to go out. I’m not going to look at them like they’re rookies. I’m going to treat them like they’re [Jets CB] Darrelle Revis and [Seahawks CB] Richard Sherman. I’m going to go out and try to ball and get as many plays as I can.”
There’s a reason why going back to the Super Bowl a second time is always harder than the first. Those teams have the shortest offseasons and recovery time of all, players get poached as their profiles get raised, while the cap gets dried-up with the signing of priority players. Both Denver and Carolina bring back large parts of their winning rosters from 2015 but how those young backs—quarters and corners—progress, will be an important factor in their opening night matchup.