Davis strong on weak side

Panthers linebacker is tied for the league lead in tackles with 18

Staff WriterSeptember 20, 2009 

— Thomas Davis has found his home in the Carolina Panthers' defense.

If his performance last week against the Philadelphia Eagles is any indication, Davis has begun his second season as the Panthers' weakside linebacker in full stride.

There's a twist for Davis, who will be going for another high-impact game today when the Panthers face the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome: He's doing it in a different system, installed by Ron Meeks, the team's new defensive coordinator.

Davis seemed to be everywhere against the Eagles, making a career-high 18 tackles (13 of them solo). Only Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher had as many tackles last week (18), but he had just 11 solo stops. The 18 tackles also tied a Panthers regular-season record (Mike Minter, vs. Atlanta, 2002; Micheal Barrow, vs. Atlanta, 1998).

"I had pretty much my best game as a pro," said Davis, who missed much of the preseason with a strained knee. "This new defense and new position, I'm really loving it. It's paying dividends for me."

This season has represented another change for Davis, the Panthers' first-round draft choice in 2005 out of Georgia. He played mostly safety in college, but had enough size (he's 6 feet, 240 pounds) that the Panthers projected him as a linebacker.

Coach John Fox thought Davis could go either way, comparing him on draft day to two of the NFL's top defenders at the time. Fox said Davis's size and physicality might allow him to play safety in the style of the Dallas Cowboys' Roy Williams, and that his quickness and nose for the ball were similar to that of Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks.

Davis bounced between the two positions as a rookie, then took over the starting strong-side linebacker spot in 2006. He played there for two seasons, gradually working his way into it, but often taking on bigger players at the point off attack. That was usually a larger, stronger tight end, but it allowed other linebackers -- such as Chris Draft, Jon Beason and Na'il Diggs -- to make tackles.

In 2008, Davis switched positions with Diggs, taking over the weak-side spot. With that came the freedom of not having to shed blockers as soon as the ball was snapped. He could go to the ball virtually unobstructed.

Meeks' "Cover 2" defense -- which he culled from former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy when Meeks was the Colts' defensive coordinator -- stresses playing with that kind of abandon even more. An immediate result was Davis's big game against the Eagles.

"It leaves me freer a lot more than it normally would," Davis said. "It's a position where I just have to beat one blocker, and it allows me to get in position to make plays."

When Davis made the switch from the strong side to weak side, he immediately began looking at film of the player Fox once compared him to.

And there's a link: Brooks played in Dungy's defense in Tampa Bay before Dungy headed to Indianapolis, where he hired Meeks.

"By far the biggest guy I've watched was Derrick Brooks," Davis said. "He played in this defense a long time and was a great 'Will' linebacker.

"He did a great job of reading the quarterback and reacting. He had so many [interceptions] just based on reading and reacting.

"Knowing that I was going to be in that position, and knowing he'd been to the Pro Bowl, like, 11 times, I would be a fool if I didn't go and watch a guy like that."

"Little birdies say that's the position to have," Diggs said of the "Will" spot. "If you look at players who play [the position] on other teams and the productivity Thomas is having, you can't help but fall into that."

dscott@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5889

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