How the Carolina Panthers Built the NFL's Best Defense

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How the Carolina Panthers Built the NFL's Best Defense
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn't until the victory over the New England Patriots that the football-watching nation, as a whole, bought into the Carolina Panthers as the NFL's next great football team. 

Built on the strength of their defense, the Panthers have proved many of their fans right who were optimistic that this defense, led by a core of young players, could come together and be this good, this fast. 

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, a defensive-minded guy, coached through a media whirlwind of "hot-seat" talks after their 1-3 start to the season and deserves a lot of credit for weathering the storm. 

Everyone by now is familiar with the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly, along with defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, and their contributions this season aren't necessarily a surprise. We already knew they were good players capable of playing at a high level.

But the influx of young talent that's joined this team and made immediate contributions has made the difference. 

The Panthers currently boast the NFL's top-ranked scoring defense, giving up just 13.5 points per. But they also rank well in terms of yards given up. Their passing defense ranks fifth with an average of just 209.5 yards per through the air, and their rush defense ranks third by surrendering just 84.5 yards per game. 

Whether it's by points or yards, any metric out there will come to the same conclusion, the Panthers have built the NFL's next great defense. 

 

Performance

Through the first eight games of the season, many had doubts about the legitimacy of the Panthers defense because of the teams they had played, at least that was the spoken narrative regarding their "eliteness."

Carolina Panthers defense through 10 games
Week Opponent Off. Rank PPG Scored vs CAR
1 Seahawks 3 27.8 12
2 Bills 21 21.5 24
3 Giants 28 19.2 0
4 Cardinals 22 21.4 22
5 Vikings 14 24 10
6 Rams 19 22.4 15
7 Buccaneers 30 18.7 13
8 Falcons 25 20.6 10
9 49ers 12 24.7 9
10 Patriots 8 25.4 20

NFL.com

While there may be some truth to their not being a gauntlet of offensive firepower to this point, there's no denying that when they've been put to the test against the better offensive teams, they've more than held their own. 

You don't have to look any farther than against the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots to see their ability, and those are currently three Top 12 teams. Those teams are averaging 78 points per game combined, and the Panthers gave up just 41 points in those three, almost half of their season averages. 

One of the many reasons the Panthers have been successful on defense has been their ability to create turnovers. They are plus-10 in that category, and it's been the front seven that has really set the tone. 

They are a 4-3 with a lot of zone-coverage looks, and they do it well. Their blitz, although not used often, is often very effective because of the skill of the players with their hand in the ground. 

The Panthers defense is built with a certain identity in mind. It wreaks havoc up front, possesses speed on the second level and enforces on the back-end. 

Let's take a closer look at each of these descriptive aspects. 

 

Havoc

The Panthers defensive line is a load to handle. 

Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have been coming off the edge for the Panthers successfully over the past few seasons. 

Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson sack numbers since 2011
Year Sacks—Hardy Sacks—Johnson Total
2011 4 9 13
2012 11 12.5 23.5
2013 6 8.5 14.5

NFL.com

They have that ability in one-on-one situations, and that's the premise of what makes the Panthers defensive line so tough to handle. Each of their players are able to handle those one-on-one's, and that's trouble for an offensive line trying to game-plan against them. 

You can't double-team everyone, and if the only option is to keep an extra guy in to help block, whether it's a running back or tight end, that's one less guy you have running when the defense is able to drop seven into coverage. 

There was a substantial investment in the defensive line when the Panthers used their top two draft picks to address the area last April. Star Lotulelei out of Utah was taken with their first pick (No. 14 overall), and Kawaan Short out of Purdue was taken with their second pick (No. 44 overall). 

Both of these players have stepped up and contributed right away for the Panthers defense. 

The play below shows the problem offenses face when dealing with this defensive front. 

NFL Rewind

Short is highlighted on the right against Patriots guard Logan Mankins, and Johnson is highlighted on the left against tackle Marcus Cannon.

Both of these players are going to be matched up in a one-on-one situation. 

NFL Rewind

Once quarterback Tom Brady has decided where he's throwing the football, Short and Johnson have already beat their men and are closing in on him.

They ultimately disrupt the throw and cause the near-interception because they were able to use their quickness and ability to win a one-on-one situation. 

This play below displays Lotulelei doing the same thing. 

NFL Rewind

The Patriots pull their left guard Mankins on this play-action pass. The red line displays the block that was intended for Lotulelei. 

It was already a pretty tough assignment for the Patriots center to kick out and handle Lotulelei because he's lined up off the outside shoulder of the guard. Lotulelei's quickness and strength got him into the backfield to disrupt the play before the offensive lineman could do anything. 

(Patriots actually run this game play later in the game with success because Lotulelei was down in the 1-technique position)

As soon as Brady turned opened to the field, he had Lotulelei in his grill, which is something he probably didn't want, or expect, to happen that quickly.

The defensive line is the cog that makes this Panthers defensive engine run. It wreaks havoc on its opponents.

Its ability to create pressure with just four, specifically because of its personnel's ability to win one-on-one situations, sets the tone for the rest of this defense, and guys on the second level are a perfect complement to what's being done up front. 

 

Speed

If the defensive line is causing havoc and blowing stuff up at, near or behind the line of scrimmage, then speed at the second level to clean up the leftovers is a perfect complement, and the Panthers have plenty of that with Kuechly and Thomas Davis. 

Kuechly has solidified himself as one of the premier linebackers in the game. 

Rivera recently spoke of Kuechly's speed and quickness, most notably that first step, and compared it to a former teammate of his with the '85 Chicago Bears championship team, via Jim Corbett USA Today.

Luke's first step is so good, really it's ridiculous. The last middle linebacker I saw take a good first step like that was Singletary. And Mike did it because he was a great studier. Luke studies. But that first step of his is innate.

Davis has displayed elite speed and quickness after three knee injuries forced him to miss much of the past four seasons. Now healthy and active, Davis has not only returned to the field with a healthy knee, his speed and quickness are also contributing to much of the Panthers' success. 

Here's a play below from Davis in their victory over the New England Patriots.

NFL Rewind

Inside the red zone, the Patriots run a stretch play to the outside with Steven Ridley. Davis is able to shed the second-level block attempt of right guard Dan Connolly and then make a play.

This is a fantastic all-around play from Davis. He displays his ability to get off a block, pick the correct pursuit angle and then have the physical ability and speed to finish the play outside of the numbers.  

Kuechly made a name for himself as a rookie by leading the NFL in tackles with 164, and he's currently ninth in the NFL in tackles this season at 87, as more is being done to clean up in front of him. 

But his speed and ability to run in the open field are on display in this play below against the San Francisco 49ers. 

NFL Rewind

The Panthers are either in a Tampa 2-style zone defense with two deep safeties and Kuechly carrying the seam. 49ers rookie tight end Vance McDonald is lined up on the line of scrimmage in the middle of the 49ers bunch-right formation, and he'll run the seam route. 

It's Kuechly's responsibility to stay with him, and Kuechly shows his ability to get down the field by opening his hips and carrying the seam almost 30 yards to break up this pass. 

It's one thing to run down the field and physically show you can run that fast to be near this play, but quite another to have the athletic IQ to then break up the pass at the same time. These are split-second decisions, and Kuechly shows everything he can do athletically on this play.

 

Enforcement

The biggest surprise on the Panthers defense has to be former Oakland Raiders safety Mike Mitchell. 

When Charles Godfrey was injured in Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills and lost for the season, it was Mitchell who had to step up and make the move from strong safety to free safety. That change brought the hard-hitting Mitchell to an area of enforcement for the Panthers stingy defense. 

They now had a hammer on the back-end.

Mike Mitchell's career numbers compared to 2013
Sacks INTs FF's Tackles
Oakland Raiders—2009-2012—61 games 3.5 2 1 139
Carolina Panthers—2013—9 games 2.5 3 2 38

ESPN.com

This play below shows what Mitchell has brought to the safety position for the Panthers this season. 

You'll notice this tackle was made three yards from the line of scrimmage; Mitchell was 16 yards deep when the ball was snapped. 

NFL Rewind

Mitchell comes downhill in a hurry from the safety position to assist in the run game. He'd be the player you'd most like to follow from play to play because he's always going 100 mph and enjoys contact. 

From a scheme perspective, the Panthers like to run out of zone coverage. In this play below, you'll see the defensive backs being on the same page with their responsibilities against Brady and the Patriots. 

NFL Rewind

The Panthers use the "jump" technique on this play as the safety and slot cornerback will switch responsibilities throughout the course of the receivers route. 

The Patriots run a "levels" concept with double-square in's from the two receivers lined up to the left side of the formation. 

The Patriots are reading what Mitchell (safety circled in red) is going to do on the play. But the Panthers take it out of his hand by having Mitchell "jump" the underneath square-in from the slot receiver, which causes the slot corner to fall off and undercut the deeper square-in. 

This is a play that Mitchell has to recognize off the snap, and based on his actions, he knew what the Patriots were going to do in regard to route combinations. That's why he hopped this route.

NFL Rewind

It's tricky for Brady because if he sees Mitchell hop the underneath route, he'll assume there's no safety help and has a clear lane to throw the deeper square-in, but that's where the slot cornerback will be waiting as he peeled off the initial underneath route. 

It's great team defense and recognition in coverage from everyone involved, starting with Mitchell. 

 

Biltzing

The Panthers don't blitz a whole lot because in all honestly, they really don't have to. They're getting consistent pressure with their front four and the ability to consistently drop seven guys into coverage is a luxury very few teams possess. 

When the Panthers do want to mix up their looks and get after the quarterback, they will give you some wrinkles, and by wrinkles, we're talking 6'2", 315-pound Lotulelei dropping into coverage. 

NFL Rewind

The Panthers only send three players after Brady on this play, despite having seven players in the box along the line of scrimmage. The three players in red are coming, and the guys in white are dropping into coverage.

You'll notice that Johnson and Lotulelei are two of the players who aren't going after Brady. 

NFL Rewind

Patriots left tackle Nate Solder doesn't know what to do and not blocking anyone probably isn't the right decision, but he probably didn't forsee Lotulelei dropping back into coverage.

NFL Rewind

Greg Hardy is given a free lane to Brady and picks up the sack. Lotulelei is right there in coverage, making sure Brady can't get the ball to receiver Danny Amendola. You see that correctly, Lotulelei covering up Amendola. 

 

Conclusion

The Carolina Panthers have proved their case as the NFL's best defense right now. They're giving up the fewest points and currently sit in the Top Five in yards in both rushing and passing allowed; it's a fair case and one that can't be refuted. 

They wreak havoc up front, have more than enough speed on the second level and punish you with physical safeties at the back-end. This isn't a fun defense to play against, and the teams it's played against will tell you that.

But with Johnson being out this week against the Miami Dolphins with a knee injury, the Panthers will have to step it up without one of their biggest playmakers on defense. 

In any case, all eyes are still looking forward to their December 8 meeting with the New Orleans Saints, whom they play again on December 22.

Those two games will solidify the narrative surrounding the Panthers defense but, more importantly, the race for the NFC South. 

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