The Carolina Panthers need an edge going into the 2013 season. While they look defensively flawed in the secondary, the team's ability to generate an excellent pass rush should be their strong suit this year. If anything, the fruits of the team's labor this offseason could turn the unit into an aggressive, sack-happy machine that could rival the 2002 Carolina defense.
The Panthers went to great lengths to improve their defensive line this offseason. General manager Dave Gettleman did his best to bring in veterans with little room in cap space and used the team's first two draft picks on two quality defensive tackles. The ultimate goal for Gettleman's strategy was to stop the run, constantly apply pressure and free up the ends and linebackers from double teams.
When the Panthers season kicks off September 8th, what kind of defense will be on the field?
Carolina has two outstanding pass rushers in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy who will make life difficult for offensive tackles and most likely opposing quarterbacks. The Panthers will have talented youth on the interior of the line with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short embarking on their professional careers. Helping them with their transition will be veteran Dwan Edwards who had a career year last season and proved he could be just as effective at sacking the quarterback. The combination of sacks between the trio of Johnson, Hardy and Edwards totaled 29.5. Those three players accounted for nearly 76 percent of the team's sacks in 2012.
What are the chances they can improve upon those numbers in 2013?
Taking into account what Lotulelei and Short will bring to the table, the odds seem very favorable for the Panthers. There isn't a reason why the defense's front seven should see too many double teams with them on the line and if it happens, it will leave someone either unblocked or in a favorable match-up.
It has been over a decade since the Panthers produced a defense that was very capable at getting to the quarterback. The 2002 Carolina defense found ways of bringing it from all over the field. That unit was led by Julius Peppers who had 12.0 sacks and Mike Rucker who wasn't far behind with 10.0 sacks of his own.
It wasn't until last year that Johnson and Hardy became the first two Carolina players to record double digits in sacks and bested Peppers and Rucker by nearly two more sacks.
However, Peppers and Rucker weren't the the only ones making plays on defense as the defensive tackle position and the linebackers made their presence known as well. Kris Jenkins led with 7.0 and Brentson Buckner had 5.0 that season. The linebackers combined for 10.0 overall with Mark Fields leading the way with 7.5.
The 2002 defense was so good at getting into the backfield, they found the quarterback 52 times. That number hasn't been reached since but that could all change in 2013.
It's still too early to tell if the rookie duo of Lotulelei and Short will be the second coming of Jenkins and Buckner but the possibility is very much there. While the 2002 linebackers were good in their own right with the likes of Dan Morgan, Will Witherspoon and Fields, this year's crop looks to be a lot better.
For starters, the current unit of Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are all capable of making over 100 tackles. Each of them has a nose for the football. Last year, Kuechly and Davis both eclipsed the 100 tackles mark and Kuechly went on to lead the league in that category as a rookie. Ultimately, the health of Beason and Davis will come into play and could be the deciding factor of how good the defense will be in 2013.
The glaring difference between the 2002 and 2013 group of linebackers is the ability to get into the backfield. The 2002 squad was good at penetrating the offensive line and getting pressure but this year's unit has never really been called upon to sack the quarterback. Kuechly had one in his rookie season, Davis has 11.0 and Beason has logged only four.
That could all change with the upgrades and changes coming to the defense this season.
If the defensive line is as good as they are projected to be, that means the linebackers will be able to move about freely on the field. That could mean more blitz packages and pressure coming from the middle of the defense where Kuechly could blow up the A-gap or see Davis and Beason on the heels of the defensive ends in a back up role.
There is one aspect of the two defensive units that separates them.
The 2012 secondary wasn't involved too often in blitzing the quarterback. In fact, no one at safety or cornerback was able to record a sack. By contrast, the 2002 Carolina secondary saw their guys record three sacks. Mike Minter, Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin all recorded a sack each that year.
While there is the possibility the secondary will be called upon in certain situations to rush the quarterback, their primary goal will most likely be shutting down receivers and let the defensive front force bad throws under pressure. Given the issues they encountered last season with missed tackles and failing to cover their assignments, the secondary's job could be simplified where they are playing back for much of the game.
Carolina's defense hasn't been a feared unit in a long time. The 2002 defense made a statement despite a disappointing year. However, the following year saw a return of the key cogs from that defensive unit and was instrumental in getting the Panthers to the Super Bowl.
The 2013 season could usher in a new era of Panthers football; one that will see them be a complete team on both sides of the ball. The defense certainly fits the mold of the 2002 team and while they may come up short of the playoffs after the regular season ends, a strong defensive showing could set the table for an aggressive defense capable of sacking the quarterback numerous times on a weekly basis.