The Obstruction Rule takes a look at the biggest upset of the round – the Penrith Panthers defeating the Brisbane Broncos, and asks how it happened and whether we could have seen it coming?
Setting the scene
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Brisbane entered the match as the unbackable favourite with the bookies following their comprehensive drubbing of the Rabbitohs in Round 19, whilst the Panthers had struggled to overcome a badly undermanned Parramatta outfit. Comparing the two teams’ VOA ratings heading into the game, it looks like a mismatch. Both sides have above average offenses (though by our measurements, Penrith’s is better), but the Panthers’ lowly defense leaks points like a sieve whereas the Broncos’ defense is Top 4 quality. Or at least that’s how it appeared at first glance.
The Broncos’ season has been in a downward spiral since they were walloped at Mount Smart in Round 13, in large part due to the unravelling of their previously league leading defense. In fact, if we look at the Broncos’ defensive VOA from Round 13 until now it paints a very different picture compared to their season average:
Broncos Defensive VOA Round 13-19: 12.96% (10th)
This, while still better than Penrith’s numbers, makes the Broncos suddenly look vulnerable. Couple this dodgy defense with the Panthers’ high octane attack, and suddenly we have a ball game.
Except that we didn’t. Penrith totally dominated the Broncos from start to finish. The Broncos never got in the hunt. So, how did this happen?
The Broncos were not very good
The Brisbane Broncos’ first mistake was inviting the Panthers into their own end. The typically well-disciplined Broncos opened the match with repeated errors by their State of Origin winger Corey Oates, and would eventually finish the match with 10 errors and 8 penalties conceded (their season high). This, along with an extraordinary 5 line drop outs forced by the Panthers, contributed to an enormous possession advantage to the Panthers, who finished with almost 50% more plays than their opposition. Losing the possession battle is always a disadvantage, but it’s particularly costly against the Penrith Panthers. The Panthers’ elite offense is especially capable of converting the excess possession into points, while the lack of ball for the Broncos denied them of opportunities to attack the Panthers’ typically weak defense.
Once they had the ball, the Panthers were quick to identify the Broncos’ soft underbelly – their left side defense. They would have scored in the 7th minute were it not for Waqa Blake’s hands of stone, and would go on to score two tries down that edge before halftime. In fairness to the Broncos, various injuries have caused frequent positional reshuffles throughout the last two months, and this match was no excception. Ideally, coach Wayne Bennett would play a left edge using Alex Glenn at second row and Jack Reed at centre. However, on this occasion Alex Glenn was forced to play at left centre, with a rotating assortment of props to fill Glenn’s second row position in defense. The Panthers took full advantage of the mismatch, as they did a week prior against the Eels (when Beau Scott shifted to right centre due to an injury to Michael Jennings, the Panthers promptly put 3 tries past him before Brad Arthur could make an adjustment. One has to wonder whether Scott missed this week’s Titans game due to night terrors after that torture). The Broncos’ defensive woes are best highlighted by the Panthers’ second try:
Here, James Fisher-Harris (highlighted) has collected a short ball from Leilani Latu, and busts through a fairly weak attempted tackle from Anthony Milford and Josh McGuire to score a try. However, look out to Fisher-Harris’ right (left of screen). Had Latu thrown the pass out the back to Cartwright instead, the Panthers had a four-on-two overlap and a certain try on the outside. To put it differently, the Broncos left edge was so bad that the Panthers had their choice of multiple options for how they wished to score on the same play.
With regards to the Broncos’ attack, their gameplan was as poor as their execution. By this point in the season, the entire league knows that the Panthers’ biggest weakness is their right edge defense, and in particular Bryce Cartwright’s struggles with reading 2nd man plays. Yet for whatever reason, the Broncos spent the majority of the match attacking the Panthers’ left edge, with no result. With their only shot at the Panthers’ right edge in the first half they would have scored a try were it not for poor execution, and when they finally returned to attack that side again in the 58th minute they cut through like a hot knife through butter – straight past Bryce Cartwright.
What to make of the Penrith Panthers?
So the Penrith Panthers thumped a premiership heavyweight. Are they suddenly contenders? Let’s hold on a moment before we declare the Panthers a genuine threat.
For a start, the Broncos’ own premiership credentials are looking weaker by the day. Notwithstanding a strong performance against the struggling Rabbitohs a week earlier, the Broncos have been a shadow of their former selves for the better part of two months.
With regards to the Panthers’ performance in the match, it’s debatable how much we actually learnt about the Panthers. Yes, the Panthers’ forward pack stood up and dominated their more fancied counterparts, but the Panthers pack usually dominates. The Penrith Panthers rank 5th in run metres VOA, and 8th in run metres conceded VOA. In fact, the Panthers had lost the run metres battle just once all season before they got thumped by the Storm in Round 13.
Yes, the Panthers scored a few points. However, we already knew that the Panthers are one of the league’s best attacking sides. They may slip under the radar of mainstream media because they place just 9th in points scored, but this is a direct result of their difficult draw through the first half of the season, throughout which they actually acquitted themselves very well against strong defenses. It’s always been the opinion of The Obstruction Rule that once the Panthers hit the cupcakes of the schedule that it would start raining points, and indeed it has. Since Round 11, Penrith have faced four teams with a positive Total Defense VOA (remembering that positive numbers for defensive stats are poor) for an average of 27.25 points a game. If we treat the Broncos as a below average defense (for the reasons explained earlier in the article), then the 31 points they scored is almost to be expected. It’s also worth noting that the rest of the way, 5 of Penrith’s 6 remaining opponents fall into this category (on current numbers).
The issue for the Panthers has always been their defense, and it’s difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from this match. Circumstances conspired to limit the Broncos’ attacking opportunities, and with the opportunities they did have they didn’t throw a lot at the Panthers defense. When they did go down Penrith’s right side, they scored.
Given the Panthers’ elite offense, even a league average defense would place them right around the Top 4, so the potential is definitely there. Unfortunately they are not a league average defense yet, and until they find an effective combination on their right edge, they’ll struggle to beat the top teams. The answer may come in the form of Te Maire Martin’s imminent return from injury, which would free up Cartwright to return to the second row (or potentially lock forward). However, until we see the Panthers’ right edge defense hold up under repeated duress, The Obstruction Rule is stopping short of declaring the Penrith Panthers premiership smokies for now.