Carolina Panthers

Analysis: Panthers defense shows it can be ‘scary’ good in win at the Texans

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Panthers at Texans

Expanded coverage of Carolina’s Week 3 game at Houston.

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What more could have been asked of this Panthers’ defense?

In a turnover-filled slop of a contest against the Houston Texans, they were the driving force keeping Carolina in the game. And for most of the game, they were the only force.

They had timely — and vicious — sacks of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, and blindside hits where he sprawled like a rag doll. They had a key interception on a sniffed-out trick play, and countless third-down stops, severely limiting a Houston team that came in converting 50 percent of those plays.

If not for them, Sunday could’ve gotten ugly. Instead, the Panthers won 16-10.

“I thought the guys were very resilient,” coach Ron Rivera said. “One of the things we talked about was having each other’s backs, because there’s times (defensively) we haven’t done what we needed to and the offense stepped up. So I was really pleased with that.”

Sunday’s story starts at the finish, as Carolina’s defense was responsible for ending the game. With less than five minutes remaining, Vernon Butler Jr. sacked Watson, and the ball popped out. Safety Eric Reid, who came on a blitz, then sprang on the loose ball. Carolina led 13-10 at the time, and that turnover — Houston’s second of the game — allowed the Panthers to bleed valuable clock.

“I was going on the blitz, and I saw him drop the ball,” Reid said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta get it.’ I’m glad I was able to.”

Backup quarterback Kyle Allen — whose magic from a week ago looked gone after three lost fumbles in the first three quarters — did have one nice play after that turnover. On a third-and-4 play, he evaded a J.J. Watt sack by ducking under him and found Jarius Wright open for a key first-down. But otherwise, he was out of sync all afternoon. He sprayed the ball too long and too wide and too short, especially on his deep attempts to Curtis Samuel, and lost three fumbles where he was stripped. Allen has lost five fumbles in his two-game stint as Cam Newton’s fill-in, despite not throwing an interception.

Allen finished 24-of-34 for 232 yards and no touchdowns, and it was the offensive talent around him that even enabled him to have the success he did. Christian McCaffrey again proved why he is one of the NFL’s best running backs, accounting for 179 total yards and a touchdown. He’s averaging more than 150 scrimmage yards and a score per game through a quarter of the season. McCaffrey also had one of the game’s best plays, a falling-down, twice-tipped double catch that extended a Panthers fourth-quarter drive.

To be fair to Allen, his offensive line struggled with the Texans’ pass-rush, too. Allen was sacked three times, and rookie left tackle Greg Little especially had difficulty slowing Whitney Mercilus in his first career start.

But none of that mattered, not with the way coach Ron Rivera’s defense played.

“We turned it over a couple of times; we were able to make a couple of plays on defense and they really kept stride,” Rivera said. “If you can keep stride with them, you’ve got a chance to win. That’s really what we were looking for, was the opportunity.”

Opportunity is one thing, but execution is another. How did they hold Watson to 160 passing yards and no scores through the air, just one week after he gashed the Chargers for 351 yards and three scores? How did they limit All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to 41 yards on five catches, half of which came on the Texans’ failed last-ditch drive?

Linebacker Shaq Thompson, who led the team with 12 tackles, put it simply:

“We’ve just got to cover and let those (defensive linemen) hunt. Just let them hunt. Let them eat,” Thompson said. “You double somebody, you leave a one-on-one with everybody else.

“You go one-on-one, you better hope you get the ball out fast — or somebody’s gonna get you.”

After sacking Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray eight times last weekend, the Panthers were able to bring Watson down six times this week. Those 14 sacks are the second-most in team history in a two-game stretch, behind only the 2013 team which had 15 in consecutive December games.

Bear in mind that these aren’t slow, immobile passers. Murray and Watson are two of the more dynamic quarterbacks in the league with their legs, both running the ball and scrambling to extend plays.

And that didn’t matter a lick.

Like it was against Arizona, Sunday was a group effort. Defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Addison led the way with two sacks, giving him five in the last two games and 5 1/2 on the season. Thompson had one, as did Bruce Irvin, playing in his first game after missing the first three weeks with a hamstring injury. Rookie first-rounder Brian Burns and nickel corner Javien Elliott split a fifth. Butler’s sack rounded things out.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” defensive lineman Gerald McCoy said. “When you get home and you walk in your door, and you go to the refrigerator and grab some cold water, that’s what you expect to do. When we take the ball away and we get sacks, we don’t really get excited because that’s what we expect to do.

“We get excited; we’re not surprised. We don’t get surprised by doing what we know we’re gonna do anyways.”

Carolina’s defensive pressure inherently comes from its depth. Between Addison and Irvin, Burns and Marquis Haynes, Christian Miller and Efe Obada, the Panthers can substitute their pass-rushers in sweeping hockey-esque lines.

One comes in, another goes out; production stays the same.

Defensive creativity also plays a part. Rivera and defensive coordinator Eric Washington can line any of those defensive ends/outside linebackers up across the offensive line in an attempt to disguise, overload and confuse. It all makes for an overwhelming “constant” attack, as Thompson said.

And it helps when the secondary covers as well as it did Sunday. Save for a few deep creases over the middle — Watson overthrew Hopkins and Fuller on streaking routes that would have gone for touchdowns — the Panthers largely kept things in front of them. There was sturdy tackling on receivers, too, to limit their yards after the catch (YAC). Communication was key, as was the case when Ross Cockrell intercepted Hopkins on a trick-play pass similar to one the Giants ran against the Panthers in 2018.

But pass coverage is easier when defenders are in Watson’s face almost immediately after the snap.

“I wasn’t in coverage that long most of the time,” corner James Bradberry said. “We had them in third-and-long a lot, so that’s when you just have to let them boys rush.”

Say what you will about this Panthers offense, but there’s little doubt that this team’s continued success hinges on defense performances like these past two.

And worth mentioning: This wasn’t Carolina at full strength. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short and starting cornerback Donte Jackson both missed the game with injuries.

“We’ve got a lot of people on D, bro. It’s scary,” Irvin said. “And we haven’t even reached our full potential yet. KK (Short) is still out and I’m just getting back, so it’s going to get even scarier.”

Eventually Newton will return and take over for Allen, which should give this diverse Panthers offense a chance to better keep pace with the defense. Special teams will continue to have an impact, like Joey Slye draining all three of his field-goal attempts Sunday.

For now, as the Panthers look to get above .500 in their return home against Jacksonville next week, it’s clear where this team stands:

The defense done did what it had to, and that’s the formula moving forward.

“People think we’re not a good defense. We’re a hell of a defense,” Thompson said. “Everybody feels comfortable with everybody. Everybody trusts everybody ... If somebody messes up, we’ll be like, ‘Okay, we’ll get the next play.’ We just go out there with a lot of faith and confidence that everybody’s going to do their job.

“We all feed off each other.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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