Six times this season, the Panthers defense has allowed fewer than two touchdowns to opponents. Over the last seven games, it has given up a miserly 11.3 points per game. On average, this defense gives up just 82 rushing yards per game (No. 2 in the NFL) and 201.3 yards through the air (No. 5).
|Opponent||Points Allowed||W/L||Rush Yards Allowed||Passing Yards Allowed|
|New York Giants||0||W||60||90|
|St. Louis Rams||15||W||63||254|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||13||W||48||249|
|San Francisco 49ers||9||W||105||46|
Pro Football Reference
Playing against the Panthers is a test of wills and determination that most NFL offenses fail.
But it hasn’t always been that way.
Just two seasons ago, the Panthers gave up 6,042 total yards to opposing offenses. Only four teams were worse. At 26.8 points per game allowed, Carolina’s scoring defense wasn’t much better, ranked at No. 27 in the league.
Last season showed a marked improvement, as the Panthers gave up 713 fewer yards and ranked 10th in the league. But Carolina was still giving away 22.7 points per game to opponents (ranked No. 18) and losing more games than it won.
Carolina’s combined record from 2011 and 2012 was 13-19, and Ron Rivera’s coaching seat was easily definable as hot.
What's been Carolina's best draft pick since 2011?
But as often happens with players in their third seasons with a team as the game slows down, Carolina’s defense started to gel in 2013. The already-strong linebacker corps rubbed off on the front four and built a formidable front seven. Even the secondary, which had been the source of so much heartbreak over the past few seasons, started playing like a group of veterans.
After nine seasons as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears, Rivera spent 14 seasons rising in the ranks of defensive coaches in the NFL. He landed with the Panthers as head coach in 2011 determined to build the team into a defensive-minded winner.
Rivera’s teachings and defensive background has finally rubbed off on his team, but it’s also seemingly rubbed off on the front office.
Skill and play on the field is only a portion of the recipe for success in the NFL. A winning franchise also has to wisely use its draft picks to make the team better. Since Rivera’s arrival, Carolina has drafted superbly in the early rounds.
Quarterback Cam Newton landed in Carolina’s lap in 2011 as the team had the first overall pick in the draft. Newton burst onto the scene and won Offensive Rookie of the Year hardware, but hasn’t, until recently, shown his potential.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly was taken ninth overall in the first round of the 2012 draft by Carolina. He led the NFL with 168 tackles in his first season and won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
The Panthers used their first two picks in the 2013 draft on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Lotulelei is the 11th-ranked defensive tackle in the league and Short No. 23. Pro Football Focus also ranked Lotulelei first among all defensive tackles in their proprietary “Stop Percentage” stat, a look at how many times a defensive player is responsible for a stop during a running play.
When examining and grading NFL drafts, it’s impossible to forget how involved the general manager and scouting departments are in making the ultimate decisions on draft day. But since there have been two different general managers during Rivera’s tenure as head coach, Rivera has to get a ton of credit for instilling the defensive mindset on draft day for the Panthers.
Without Kuechly, Lotulelei and Short, this Carolina defense would look much different and likely wouldn’t be powering this team possibly into the playoffs. Without Rivera, this defense wouldn’t be nearly as potent, either.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.