Outside linebacker Chase Blackburn doesnt need to look at the NFL statistics to know the Carolina Panthers defense is playing well.
All Blackburn does is hit play when watching the game tapes and hes reminded how the Panthers are playing fundamentally sound team defense.
Corners are tackling well. Were pressuring the quarterback. Weve been flying around. You turn on the film, guys are running, Blackburn said this week. Doesnt matter if its a D-lineman retracing (in pursuit), a cornerback coming up to fit a run, it doesnt really matter. And I think thats the sign of a good defense when you have everybody running to the ball every play.
The run began last season after Luke Kuechlys move from outside to middle linebacker in Week 5 helped vault the Panthers into the top 10 of the leagues defenses. Its continued this year, despite injuries in the secondary and the trade of veteran linebacker Jon Beason to the Giants.
Entering Sundays home game against the St. Louis Rams, the Panthers are third in total defense (299.2 yards allowed per game), second in scoring defense (13.6 points) and fourth against the run (88.8 yards).
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said its a natural progression under defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, whos had 2 1/2 years to familiarize players and coaches with his 4-3 scheme and a philosophy Rivera referred to as situationally aggressive.
McDermott, 39, spent nearly a dozen years in Philadelphia with Jim Johnson, eventually succeeding the Eagles blitz-happy coordinator after Johnson died.
Rivera, a former defensive coordinator who also worked with Johnson in Philadelphia, talked with McDermott about developing his own personality, different from that of the shoot-from-the-hip Johnson.
I think what hes learned is youve got to put the player in the best position. You cant just rely on trying to send six, seven, eight guys at a time, Rivera said. I think hes learning at times, certain situations and circumstances call to be aggressive.
If youve got a big lead, you dont want to be overly aggressive. You dont want to give up a play right away. Try to keep everything in front of you. Now that youve done that, you want to be more aggressive at the right time. Hes done that, as well.
The critical stats
McDermott prefers to use his four-man front to generate pressure in most situations, keeping his secondary in soft zone coverage to defend against long, momentum-changing completions.
Big plays break down a defense. And any time you can keep things underneath Im not a big guy on completion percentage because if hes dinking and dunking, well take that, McDermott said. Well take second-and-7, second-and-6 or more. Thats where the fundamentals come into play. Thats why we work so much on tackling every week.
While the top-3 defensive ranking is nice, McDermott pays more attention to what he called critical statistics that help teams win games rushing defense, red-zone defense, third-down defense and takeaways.
The Panthers have fared well in most of those categories. Theyre fourth in rushing defense and red-zone defense, giving up four touchdowns in their opponents 11 trips inside the 20.
Carolina ranks 14th with 11 takeaways, but is 20th in third-down defense, allowing teams to convert 38.5 percent of their third-down chances.
Blackburn, whose emergence in his first year with Carolina helped lead to the trade of Beason, said the Panthers are giving up too much yardage on third down and in two-minute situations.
Were playing at a high rate and we know that we have left plays on the field, Blackburn said. We just have to continue to get better in those areas, not leave those plays out there.
Other than a communication breakdown in the secondary in a last-minute loss at Buffalo and a few other lapses, the defense has been solid.
Transition takes time
Rivera said players are more comfortable in McDermotts system, which has its challenges.
Hes really matured a lot and in the 2 1/2 seasons weve been here, and the defensive guys are starting to understand the complexities of what we try to do, Rivera said. Sean came in with a lot of ideas, but Jims system was very complex. A lot of people dont realize it.
Defensive end Greg Hardy said players are buying into what McDermott is calling.
We believe in everything that he shoots out there, every defense that he calls we believe in it wholeheartedly, Hardy said. Hes teaching us how to adjust and adapt and become a playoff-caliber defense.
McDermott likes that different players have been stepping up. When Charles Godfrey went down with a season-ending Achilles tear in Week 2 at Buffalo, free agent pickup Mike Mitchell slid from strong to free safety. Mitchell has three interceptions the past two games.
When rookie strong safety Robert Lester missed the Vikings game with a hamstring injury, Quintin Mikell less than 100 percent himself with an ankle injury started and collected five tackles.
Kuechly, the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, and weakside linebacker Thomas Davis are the teams leading tacklers. The Panthers also have received a boost from rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who has logged more snaps because of Dwan Edwards hamstring injury.
I think players understand where they fit in the scheme and how they fit into the puzzle. So were seeing different guys show up, McDermott said. I think what youre seeing is an evolution of a defense thats working on getting better every week, but still has a long way to go.
Hardy believes the Panthers can finish as the No. 1 defense. Houston (252.8 yards a game) holds that spot, and Seattle (290.2) is second.
If we just keep doing what were doing ... were going to keep climbing. And when we get to No. 1, were going to keep climbing after that, Hardy said. And if we dont get to No. 1, were going to come back and work even harder. I feel like were never going to stop.
Were hungry because coach McDermott put us in that mindset. We love that guy and we love each other. Were going to put it on the line.
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