Carolina Panthers

Panthers mailbag: Defensive improvements? Cam Newton’s video? Biggest disappointment?

Vaulting to the top of the NFL’s defensive rankings certainly does attract some attention.

The Panthers have recorded 14 sacks in their last two games, including six against the Houston Texans on Sunday. Not coincidentally, Carolina has won both those games to get to 2-2 on the season.

Now the question becomes: Can Carolina keep it up?

We’ll start this week’s mailbag there:

1. How has the Panthers’ defense improved so much, and is this success sustainable? 157 passing yards allowed per game so far is insane to me.

I don’t know if I’d go with “insane,” but definitely count me surprised that the Panthers have the NFL’s top-ranked passing defense a quarter of the way through the season.

There has been clear improvement in the defensive backfield, and the additions of Tre Boston and Ross Cockrell shouldn’t be overlooked there. Boston’s communication has helped prevent a number of blown coverages. Meanwhile, Cockrell can truly play any position from outside corner to big nickel, and his versatility is key to disguising a lot of the blitzes and plays the Panthers want to use. Also, James Bradberry has taken the next step in his development towards becoming a shutdown cornerback.

But the main reason I see for Carolina’s defensive improvement is with the front seven. The additions of Brian Burns, Bruce Irvin, Gerald McCoy and Christian Miller have injectedmuch-needed speed into the pass rush. Throw in Mario Addison and Marquis Haynes, and coach Ron Rivera almost has too many guys to rotate through. That depth allows him and defensive coordinator Eric Washington to swap out full lines at a time, and to constantly keep pressure on opposing passers, even with the loss of KK Short.

As for whether this is sustainable? It’s hard to say, but there’s plenty to like about the long-term potential of this group. Getting defensive pressure — especially without excessive blitzing — will be the most important thing to monitor. If that continues, it makes life easier for the secondary.

I’ll say this: I’m much more optimistic about this defense than I was before the season began.

2. Is Rivera reluctant to switch to the 3-4 because it will expose the secondary in more man-to-man coverage?

The Panthers switched to a 3-4 base defensive formation this offseason, but they really haven’t used it much so far.

Why? Because the four offenses Carolina has faced — the Rams, Bucs, Cardinals and Texans — all prefer to play primarily three- and four-receiver sets. That means the Panthers needed to use more of their nickel package, or their big nickel, or even their six-defensive back package they debuted in Week 1. With that many receivers on the field so often, you need extra corners and safeties in coverage rather than extra defensive linemen or linebackers to stop the run.

That should change this week against the Jaguars, who are much more run-focused behind Leonard Fournette. Panthers’ nose tackle Dontari Poe has especially been playing well lately, and he has a chance to emerge even more if he penetrates the inside of Jacksonville’s offensive line.

3. Biggest surprise and disappointment through the first quarter of the season?

Surprise: The defensive line. The run defense has suffered somewhat, but the pass rush has been one of the NFL’s best. Brian Burns has made an immediate impact as a rookie, and Mario Addison is balling out in a contract year. I had serious questions about how this group would hold up, and I’ll absolutely admit the line’s performance has exceeded my expectations. Other surprises have been Joey Slye’s consistency and Christian McCaffrey becoming even more dynamic.

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Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) leads the NFL in rushing and scrimmage yards through four games this season. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Disappointment: The offense overall. McCaffrey has been as advertised and then some, and Greg Olsen has had a solid comeback season. But with the shuffling between Cam Newton and Kyle Allen, there just hasn’t been a ton of consistency in the passing game. DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel are both explosive, but that hasn’t been unlocked through four games. I’d imagine that will continue to evolve, but things haven’t looked in-sync thus far. The offensive line hasn’t been flawless, either.

4. What are the chances the Panthers would consider signing/trading for another established veteran like they did last year with Eric Reid?

Slim. The Reid signing last year was more out of necessity than anything, after starter Da’Norris Searcy went on injured reserve following Week 2. Reid was by far and away the best option on the free-agent market, but the team didn’t have to go out and find a solution until Searcy’s absence created a hole.

For now, there really isn’t a similar gap on this roster. Another depth offensive lineman would probably be useful, and if the team did make any move, that’s likely where it would be. But the Panthers like the group they have, and they don’t have a ton of cap room (about $15 million) to do anything drastic.

5. Do you sense any animosity from Rivera around the video Newton posted, and how do you think that relationship plays out the rest of the year?

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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera didn’t have much to say after quarterback Cam Newton released a tell-all video about his health. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

This question is too interesting not to include.

Newton recently released a video confirming he has a Lisfranc injury in his left foot. He also spoke about needing time to heal and how that was difficult for him to admit. . In the video, he was also smoking a cigar and drinking a glass of red wine.

Rivera said this week he had seen the quarterback’s video, but when I asked him what he made of it, he didn’t really elaborate. And I’m guessing the reason this question came in was because when he answered, Rivera had a bit of an edge to him.

Let me say this: Newton and Rivera are joined forever, dating back their arrival together in 2011. They’ve got a bond that most people don’t fully understand or appreciate. I would be truly shocked if Rivera is harboring a grudge at his quarterback over the release of that video.

That said, I also don’t think he’s thrilled that Newton is being that revealing with the public. NFL teams prefer to operate in secrecy as much as possible, and that video was basically the exact opposite.

But, no, I don’t think there’s any animosity.

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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