Is Carolina's Defense Good Enough to Carry Panthers into Playoff Hunt?
The Carolina Panthers went 12-4 in 2008, won the NFC South by one game over the Atlanta Falcons and lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Arizona Cardinals. In the five years since, the team is 26-44 and hasn’t been above .500.
Let than sink in.
The Panthers lost that playoff game on Jan. 10, 2009. Since then, swine flu hit the world, as did "Bieber fever." “Gangnam Style” shattered YouTube popularity records, and Carolina has played 70 games without spending one minute as a winning team.
If the Panthers can beat the 0-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday, their record will move to 4-3 and a horrible, inglorious streak will come to an end.
Credit the Carolina offense for waking up. After starting the season 0-2, the Panthers have won three of four games, in part, because quarterback Cam Newton has been playing “lights out,” and the offense has put up 30 points on the scoreboard three times. But the underlying praise, the backbone and catalyst of this team lies squarely on the shoulders of the defense.
Talk about stingy, only the Kansas City Chiefs (11.6 points per game) give up fewer points each game than Carolina, which allows opponents just 13.8 points per game. Yards don’t come easily either. The Panthers rank fifth in the NFL in passing yards allowed (217.7) and fourth in rushing yards allowed (84.5).
The motor of this Carolina defense is middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the 2012 Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Kuechly is so much of a force, the St. Louis Rams game-planned to take him out of the equation, according to David Newton of ESPN.com.
Much of it had to do with a special scheme the Rams hadn't shown all season. It involved the linemen getting off their blocks on the defensive front quickly and going after Kuechly.
Let defensive coordinator Sean McDermott take it from here.
"What happened was they decided they weren't going to let Luke make a hundred tackles," McDermott said. "So they started going up to the second level to block Luke. Now [tackles Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei and Colin Cole] all have to make those plays, and they did."
Thomas Davis, who stands next to Kuechly in the middle of the defense, is ranked by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the NFL’s third-best 4-3 outside linebacker. His overall 3.6 rating is one of just six positive ratings PFF has given for the season to an outside linebacker in a 4-3 system that has played at least 50 percent of his team's snaps.
The duo works well together because of the different attributes each brings to the table. While Kuechly is roaming the field, tackling everything in sight, Davis (who’s also a tackling machine with just one fewer tackle than Kuechly this season) can attack the quarterback.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Davis is the fourth-best pass-rushing 4-3 outside linebacker. He’s very productive when he blitzes the opposing quarterback and has three sacks, two quarterback hits and five hurries in 40 pass-rush snaps.
Kuechly and Davis get things done in the middle of Carolina’s defense, but there’s a ton of good going on up front, too.
Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are two of the best in the business. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Johnson ranks No. 3 and Hardy No. 5 as the NFL’s most effective pass-rush specialists from a 4-3 scheme.
From the left side, Johnson has registered four sacks, five quarterback hits and 22 hurries. He’s only rushed twice from the right. Hardy attacks mostly from the right side, and he’s tallied four sacks, eight quarterback hits and 14 hurries.
Lying in wait, in between Johnson and Hardy are defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, Carolina’s first- and second-round draft picks, respectively, from the 2013 draft.
Of defensive tackles in a 4-3 scheme with at least 50 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Lotulelei ranks as the fourth-best run-stopper in the league, and Short comes in at No. 9. Lotulelei was praised by Chris Wesseling of NFL.com last week as the No. 6 rookie of the 2013 season.
6. Star Lotulelei, Carolina Panthers defensive tackle: Every couple of games, Carolina's defense just slaps an offense around. Lotulelei has been instrumental in the improved run defense, shutting down the interior.
It was fairly easy to run against the Panthers in recent years. Last season, the Panthers ranked 14th in yards allowed on the ground and gave up 4.2 yards per carry to opposing running backs. Because Lotulelei and Short are now anchoring the middle of the defensive line, that per-carry average has dropped by half-a-yard, and Carolina ranks fourth in yards allowed per game.
Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus makes 32 observations from around the NFL each week. On Tuesday, he wrote about Carolina safety Michael Mitchell, who statistically is having a similar year, this season, to last, but his output is much greater.
Carolina Panthers: Safety Michael Mitchell has the exact same coverage statistics in terms of targets and catches allowed from 2012 to 2013 at 12 targets and nine catches allowed. The difference is in 2012 he didn’t have an interception where this year he has three which is tied for second most among safeties.
The difference at the safety position for the Panthers has much to do with why the secondary is no longer a liability on defense. Mitchell and Quintin Mikell have combined for three sacks and three interceptions this season.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Mitchell has an overall rating of 3.1, and Mikell’s is 2.9. Even injured safety Robert Lester, who could return soon, has a 2.2 rating, and he has two interceptions on the season.
Last season, safeties Haruki Nakamura and Charles Godfrey both had negative ratings from Pro Football Focus, and neither had a sack. They combined for four interceptions, but that was over the course of the entire season. Mitchell, Lester and Mikell have five combined through six games.
There has been almost across-the-board improvement for the Carolina defense in 2013. Stars like Kuechly, Hardy, Johnson and Davis continue to shine while new stars like Lotulelei, Lester and Short begin to show grand potential. Even role players like cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, along with Mikell and Mitchell, have helped carry the load for Carolina.
As long as this defense stays healthy and continues to produce, it will give this Panthers team a shot at success. It doesn’t take much offense to win football games if the defense allows fewer than two touchdowns per game on average.
Add to the prowess of Carolina’s defense the fact that the offense is beginning to click and you have a recipe for not just a long-awaited trip above the .500 mark but potentially a trip to the playoffs.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
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