Prior to the start of the 2013 NFL season, many analysts and fans speculated about the level of success the Carolina Panthers would experience on defense. The year before, the Panthers were a wreck on the interior of the defensive line and the secondary was inconsistent. Free agency brought a bit of hope with the additions of Mike Mitchell and Drayton Florence. However, they were not immediate upgrades to a questionable part of the defense. The NFL Draft allowed Carolina to shore up their defensive line, and they wasted no time spending their first two picks on two quality defensive tackles.
The general consensus was that the defense would generate enough pressure up front to allow the secondary to make plays in front of them. They were expected to be strong in stopping the run, but would be vulnerable against the pass. Halfway through the season, the defense is playing better than anticipated in both facets of the defensive game.
It's also a reason why the team is sitting at 5-3 after eight games and one game out of first in the NFC South.
While the Panthers are in the playoff picture, it is not unreasonable to see why some people are dismissing them as serious contenders. All of their wins have been impressive, yet they have been against underachieving teams. The most ardent supporters look at how close two of those three losses were (12-7 against Seattle and 24-23 against Buffalo) and the winning margin of their five wins.
Aside from the losses to Buffalo and Arizona, the Carolina defense has not surrendered more than 20 points a game. An argument can be made about the game against the Cardinals as the defense only gave up 14 points while the remaining eight came from two field goals and a safety.
Regardless, there is no denying the talent and the strength of this unit.
The defense played extremely well against an Atlanta offense that was third in passing offense (just over 300 yards a game heading into Week 9), allowing Matt Ryan to pass for just 211 yards. The Atlanta rushing game was stymied too as the Panthers limited the Falcons to 78 yards on the ground.
Looking further into the numbers, the Carolina Panthers have done exceedingly well on defense and have only allowed one 300 yard passer (Russell Wilson of Seattle) and one running back to rush for over 100 yards (C.J. Spiller) over the first half of the season.
When the youth of the Carolina secondary is taken into consideration, it is impressive how well they have done against the passing attack this season. Undrafted free agents Robert Lester and Melvin White are making names for themselves and have made cases for being the team's defensive backs of the future.
The contributions of the defense have allowed the offense to play more loosely and take the burden off Cam Newton to make plays or be challenged to spark some late game heroics. Of course, there is speculation about how well this defense will fare against the likes of San Francisco and New England, their opponents over the next two weeks, and the two games against the New Orleans Saints. With the exception of San Francisco, the Patriots and Saints boast top ten units in total offense.
The 49ers may not look overly impressive in total offense, but they are very good in the rushing game. If the Panthers are to be successful on the west coast, they will need to shut down Frank Gore and contain Colin Kaepernick in the pocket, forcing him to make plays with his arm.
Fortunately, Carolina has had experience with squaring off against mobile quarterbacks this season taking on Wilson and E.J. Manuel. However, both were losing efforts, and the defense will need to step up and capitalize when an opportunity presents itself.
Of course, being opportunistic has been a defining attribute for the Carolina defense this year. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has made passing over the middle a difficult task, picking off three passes in the first half of the season. He may not be the tackling machine he was a year ago, but he has found a way to be involved in nearly every play when the Panthers defense is on the field.
The leading tackler of the defense is Thomas Davis, who missed significant game time between 2009-11 due to a knee injury. His return last year was worthy of AP Comeback Player of the Year honors. Much like his inside counterpart, Davis has been a force on the outside and has not been shy about making some hard hits. He has only one interception, but has three quarterback sacks to his credit.
Considering the quarterbacks the Carolina Panthers have seen or will face this year, it is good to have an effective pass rush. Davis has done his part from the outside linebacker position, using his speed to get into the defensive backfield quickly. However, that does not negate what the defensive line has been doing this year.
Both Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are on pace to record double digits in sacks for a second year in a row. They have 7.0 and 5.0 sacks respectively, and with a solid middle taking away some of their double teams, they have a means to be just as disruptive as they were a year ago.
While both Johnson and Hardy are responsible for 12.0 of the team's 23 sacks, 3.5 of them are credited to the interior of the defensive line. Rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short have been as good as advertised and look to be permanent fixtures on the defensive line for seasons to come. The front seven of the defense have been getting it done by stopping their opponents rushing attack and helping out the secondary by pressuring the quarterback.
Carolina may not be getting the credit they deserve, but to see where they came from defensively over the past few seasons and how well the current unit has played should speak volumes about the coaching and how well the players have taken to the system.
To put it all in perspective, the Panthers are on pace to give up only 212 points this season, which would be a franchise best. The current best in points against is 218 which was set in 1996; the team's second year in the league and division winner that went all the way to the NFC Conference Championship game. The last time Carolina kept their opponents under 300 points was in 2005—the year they lost to Seattle for the NFC Championship. That season they allowed 259 points.
If history is an indicator, the success of the 2013 Carolina Panthers and the fate of head coach Ron Rivera may rest on the strength of their defense. The Panthers have helped their cause by jumping out to a great start on the year, and if they can continue their streak of late season dominance, they should make a postseason appearance.
The next two months will determine how tough the Carolina defense really is and if they can compete against perennial playoff contenders. The second half will not be easy by any means, but this defense is a resilient bunch which has overcome injuries (Charles Godfrey) and unexpected departures (the trade of Jon Beason).
This year's defensive unit can go down as one of the best in team history, but it will not mean a thing if the Panthers cannot make it to the playoffs. For now, the unit is making great progress and its continued growth will allow the team to focus on upgrading other areas of the roster.
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