Panthers defense seeks improvement in 2012

Addition of players returning from injury, Kuechly hope to jump-start group

jjones@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 9, 2012 

  • Last season’s defensive stats Points per game 26.8 Rank: No. 27   Yards per game 377.6 Rank: No. 28   Passing yards per game 246.8 Rank: No. 24   Rushing yards per game 130.8 Rank: No. 25   First downs per game
  • More information 20.6
  • More information Rank: No. 23

Cornerback Josh Norman called it the “stepchild” of the Carolina Panthers. Fellow corner Captain Munnerlyn said they didn’t want to be the “downfall” of the team.

The Panthers’ defense struggled mightily last year, and it limped to the end of the regular season as the fifth-worst defense in the league. The defensive troubles were magnified by the prolific offense the team had assembled, shining a harsher light on the defenders.

Some even wondered if last year’s 6-10 team would have been a playoff team had the defense matched the offense in success. The pass rush was poor, the secondary was poor and those struggles went hand-in-hand. Add on some injuries to key players and the formula for becoming the 28th-ranked defense in the NFL seems simple.

But the Panthers are looking to turn it around this season and place a product on the field that can be similar in success to its offense.

Two veteran linebackers return from injury while adding a potential candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. The secondary has new blood that is creating greater competition in the defensive backfield, and the defensive line is getting greater rush from the ends and a more vertical push from the inside.

The Panthers’ defense is aiming for a turnaround.

Eyeing a turnaround

A sizeable defensive turnaround is still possible in an NFL where new offensive records seem to be falling at rapid pace.

The Houston Texans showed last year that it can be done. The team gave up an average of 376.9 yards per game in 2010 before shaving 91.2 yards per game off that average in 2011—the third-largest turnaround in the league in more than 40 years.

The Panthers gave up an average of 377.6 yards per game last year, and the buck stops at defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.

“Nobody’s got higher expectations of us than we have of ourselves. We’re out to be the best that we can be, and we take that approach every day when we come through the doors,” McDermott said. “We know, we recognize and acknowledge, last year there were certain situations we didn’t handle as well as we wanted. That’s behind us. These guys are moving forward and they’re coming in with the right attitude. They’re playing a better brand of football, but we have to continue to make progress.”

The defense may have moved past last season, but the statistics still remain. The Panthers had the sixth-worst third-down conversion percentage (43), the third-worst yards-per-play average (6.2) and ranked 26th in points allowed per game at 26.8.

Veteran strong safety Charles Godfrey anchors the defensive backfield that was burned on more occasions than it would like to remember. He sees improvement in the defense already and hopes it transfers into the regular season.

“I know for a fact we have to play better defense,” Godfrey said. “That’s what we’re going to do and that’s what I think we have been doing. We’ve been looking good as far as camp and then coming in with the preseason games, looking even better. Just getting better and better each week. That’s what we’re focused on as a defense: Playing better defense. Offense do what they do. If they have a bad game, then we’ve got to hold our end up, no matter what.”

In eight of 16 games last season, the Panthers gave up at least 250 passing yards to their opponent. To help matters, Carolina signed Haruki Nakamura to a 3-year, $4.8 million deal in the offseason. The former Raven backed up Ed Reed during his four years in Baltimore at free safety.

With the safeties settled, McDermott and the rest of the staff expected Brandon Hogan to emerge as a serious contender for the No. 2 cornerback position occupied by Captain Munnerlyn. But Hogan could never get his knee healthy in training camp and was placed on injured reserve. No matter, rookie Josh Norman did his part in limited time in Spartanburg.

Norman had one practice where he had four interceptions, putting his own mark on the secondary. He’ll be Munnerlyn’s understudy, but he’ll also see the field as the second cornerback on third downs when Munnerlyn slides into the nickel.

It’s a position that’s new to Munnerlyn, who admitted he struggled at times with concepts last year—his first playing nickel.

“We just have to get off the field on third down. Me, personally, that’s one of the key things we have to do,” Munnerlyn said. “It’s better than last year, I’ll tell you that. My coaches are doing a great job with me. I learn something new every day.”

Going hand-in-hand with the secondary’s struggles last season was the pass rush. Carolina’s front four had a bad year by most measures, averaging less than a sack per game.

In fact, according to ColdHardFootballFacts.com, the Panthers had one of the 10 worst pass defenses in the Super Bowl era. Using opponent’s passing yards per attempt while combining the number of sacks and yards lost, the site develops the defensive real pass yards per attempt. The Panthers gave up 7.58 yards every time the quarterback dropped back.

It’s the worst average for a team in the NFL since the 2008 Detroit Lions, which went 0-16 that season.

In the preseason, Ron Rivera called out the $72 million man Charles Johnson, who was not reaching his full potential from the defensive end position. At the other end position is Greg Hardy, who didn’t necessarily dazzle in his four preseason contests with five tackles and no sacks.

“I thought Greg, when you turned the tape on, did a nice job. He’s going to matched up a lot of times against the best blocker from the opponent, that being the left tackle, and when you turn the tape on, Greg’s getting close to the quarterback,” McDermott said. “Is that the goal, coming close? No. We want sacks and we want to affect the quarterback more than anything. It doesn’t show up in the stats, but it shows up on tape.”

In the final week of the preseason, the Panthers still showed some uncertainty settling on depth at the defensive line. The team cut only one defender in the first round of cuts before doing some housekeeping in the final round of cuts. Even still, one day after narrowing the list to 53 men, the Panthers made a surprising move on the defensive line.

Veteran defensive tackle Dwan Edwards was claimed off waivers from Buffalo and second-year player Terrell McClain was released. McClain played and started in 12 games for the Panthers last season, but he proved inconsistent in training camp. Edwards provides a strong vertical pass rush, and Rivera said very early that he would start for the team.

Returns from injury should help

McDermott repeated that hard work will be what turns this defense around. He’s also quick to point out that a slew of injuries crippled the Panthers last season.

Veteran linebacker Jon Beason spent all last preseason nursing a sore Achilles before tearing it in the third quarter of the first game of the season. The following game, Thomas Davis tore his right ACL for a third time after being held out the entire 2010 season.

“They’re great players and great leaders so whenever they’re not out there and we’re missing key parts of the defense,” McDermott said. “That said, the guys have stepped up and last year was an example of guys who stepped up and earned respect for what they did on the field. That’s what happens. Guys get hurt, and we’ve got to continue to move forward as a defense and as a team.”

Both men are back, though they are getting reintegrated into the defense gradually. Davis had a strained right calf that held him out of the first two preseason games while Beason missed the entire preseason with a hamstring injury. He practiced for the first time in nearly a month last Sunday and said his hamstring was at about 85 percent.

“I think we’re better already. I think that was evident through the preseason, even though I wasn’t a part of that,” Beason said of the entire defense. “There’s a lot of communication, there’s more veteran leadership. There’s a bigger commitment to having roles and staples and I think once guys get comfortable in their scheme we can be really good.”

The latest addition to the Panthers linebacking corps came in April when the Panthers took Boston College’s Luke Kuechly with the ninth overall selection. An early candidate for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Kuechly racked up 17 sacks in the preseason along with a forced fumble.

His teammates rave about the 21-year-old, who is still trying to adjust to the speed of the game. He was surprised by how fast everyone on the field was, how quickly the plays got off. Still, he’s been able to maintain the same tackling ability that made him the top tackler in ACC history in just three years.

“First of all, he came in with the right approach in terms of earning the respect of his fellow teammates,” McDermott said. “He’s been very humble, and so when you combine that with hard work, people just gravitate toward him. And the results speak for themselves. That said he still has work to do. There’s going to be things that come up that he hasn’t seen before. This is a new experience for him and we have to continue to expose him to as many of those situations as we can as he grows as a player and as a person in the NFL.”

With all 11 starters at full health, a year under McDermott’s defense and a forgettable performance from last season in the rearview, the defense has few excuses for not succeeding this year.

And, with the offense the Panthers have assembled, if the defense gets better…

“Hey,” Charles Godfrey said, “it’s not rocket science, I don’t think.”

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