Defense wins championships. A lot of coaches have been saying it for years. The Carolina Panthers have been identified as being defensive-oriented since their inception. From Dom Capers to Ron Rivera, every head coach to grace the sidelines for the Panthers has been one with a defensive background.
When the right personnel have been on the field or the unit has remained healthy, Carolina has a defense that is among the best in the league.
While the Cam Newton-led offense may garner much of the attention, the defense will be the backbone of the team’s success and failures in 2013. Last year, the Panthers were in every game but two, and a few of those losses were due to the defense being unable to stop its opponents in the waning minutes of the game.
Enter Dave Gettleman, who brought his “hog molly” philosophy to Carolina and proceeded to beef up the defensive line through both the draft and free agency.
He made Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei his first pick in the draft and followed it up by selecting Purdue’s Kawann Short. What was a liability on defense became an immediate strength in just two rounds.
But will it be enough?
In a perfect world, the tandem of Lotulelei and Short will be a staple of Carolina football for years to come and should anchor a line that can be one of the league’s elite on an annual basis. However, the football world is far from perfect, and the Panthers haven’t tasted playoff glory since 2008.
These two young men will be charged with shoring up a weak interior on the line, stuff the run and free up the linebackers and defensive ends to create all kinds of problems for opposing quarterbacks.
That is asking a lot of two rookies who will be seeing plenty of playing time this upcoming season. The good news is they will have plenty of veterans to help them make the transition into the Carolina defense and practice against an offense that has the potential to be great in 2013.
With the rookies in place, there is still the matter of the veteran starters who will be counted on to either improve last year’s numbers or rebound from a horrible 2012 campaign.
Carolina Needs to Combat the Injury Bug
Veteran and team captain Jon Beason has been very limited the past two seasons because of injuries. He only appeared in five games between the 2011-12 seasons and has seen his stock drop because of it.
Additionally, there has been speculation about his time in Carolina coming to an end, but if he can stay healthy and play the outside with the same kind of skill that he did at middle linebacker, he could stick around longer.
The same can be said of Thomas Davis, another Carolina linebacker who dealt with his own injury issues and came back with a strong season in 2012. That year marked his first full season since 2008; though he did miss one game last season.
Davis and Beason will be closely watched as their health will be paramount to how good the defense will be when the season gets under way.
Fortunately, the Panthers do have Chase Blackburn and rookie A.J. Klein to step in and make an immediate impact if necessary. The ideal situation would be to keep them both in a backup role, but anything is possible on any given week.
If the middle of the defense can stay intact along with the secondary and defensive front, the Panthers will have going for them during the season.
Pass Rush Will be Key
Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are both coming off great seasons where they each recorded more than 10 sacks. With an improved defensive line, expect the blitz packages to be more frequent and Carolina’s pass rush off the edge to be more lethal. Most quarterbacks are not nearly effective under pressure, and the key to the defense’s success will be to upset their opponent’s tempo.
Lotulelei, Short and Dwan Edwards should be able to take away the double-teams, which will allow Johnson, Hardy or any of the linebackers to penetrate the backfield and cause a plethora of problems.
Teams like Atlanta, New Orleans, New England and the New York Giants all have quarterbacks who are dangerous when they have a lot of time inside the pocket. An effective pass rush will make all of those teams and this year’s opponents one dimensional.
The same can be said about those teams with a mobile quarterback. Fortunately, the Panthers have a great mobile quarterback to practice against. Having that luxury could help the defense prepare for the likes of Seattle, San Francisco, Buffalo and the New York Jets (the latter assuming Geno Smith is named the starter for their matchup).
Ultimately, having an excellent pass rush will nullify the need for a shutdown corner or an elite player in the secondary.
Secondary Is a Weak Link, But It Can Be Solid
There is no doubt that this year’s weak area is the secondary.
Until the season starts in September, let’s assume the starting cornerbacks will be Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Norman. Neither one is very flashy, but both did play well last year in the wake of former Panthers corner Chris Gamble being lost for the season. They combined for three interceptions in 2012 and both have proved durable on the field.
Safety is the wild card among the group, and with the lone exception to Charles Godfrey, the other safety position will be up for grabs heading into training camp. Haruki Nakamura struggled last season, and his spot on the roster is not guaranteed with the likes of Colin Jones and Robert Lester looking to challenge him for the starting job. Mike Mitchell and D.J. Campbell cannot be overlooked either.
The pass defense was middle of the road last season, finishing 14 out of 32 teams in the league. However, Carolina’s total defense rounded out the top 10, and that should be looked at with a sense of optimism moving forward.
There should be no reason why both the pass defense and rush defense won’t improve in 2013 and make the defense a formidable one during the course of the season.
Carolina has an excellent blend of veteran leadership and promising rookies on defense, and the outlook should be favorable not only on the team but among the fanbase. If the Panthers defense can correct the mistakes of last year and help close out the tight ballgames, they could very well see an win increase of three or four games at the end of this season.
The offense may get all the accolades, but defense wins championships.