Carolina Panthers Fans Hope the Change We Need Is on Defense
Following a 12-4 season in which Carolina won the NFC South, forgive Panther fans for viewing the word "change" with suspicion.
Nevertheless, if Carolina doesn't have a good defense in 2009—which would be a change indeed from the one stumbled around during the second half of 2008—the Panthers will again be pretenders instead of contenders.
That's a modification that should be embraced, and it's one that has been assigned to new coordinator Ron Meeks.
Head coach John Fox is often criticized for what is perceived to be an overly conservative approach to the game, but in this case it makes pretty good sense that he clung to the status quo as closely as possible in the offseason—at least on the field.
With the exception of cornerback Ken Lucas, virtually every meaningful contributor from 2008 is back in the fold; assuming, of course, that Julius Peppers signs his one-year mega-deal.
But clearly the Panthers weren't good enough to reach the top of the hill last season, and the problem wasn't on the offensive side of the ball.
Carolina scored plenty, ranking seventh in the league in points with 26 per game. Even better from the Panthers' perspective, they did it with a pair of young, explosive running backs who now take the heat off of the most explosive wide receiver in the league.
As long as DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Steve Smith are around, this will be an offense to be feared even with the erratic Jake Delhomme under center, and there won't be many bells and whistles required to make the engine hum.
No, the issue was a defense that gave up 30 points an outing down the stretch. Meeks replacing Mike Trgovac is easily the biggest modification to the team in the offseason, and his job is a deceptively simple one: Make Carolina better.
But how? He'll have the same players, and odds are as long as Fox, who built his reputation as a defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, is around he'll have to also do it with pretty much the same scheme Carolina has been running since 2002.
Many fans are pushing for a switch to the 3-4, but there's a big problem with that idea: Meeks didn't run it in Indianapolis (he was a Cover 2 guy), and Fox has never run it. The odds of Fox making such a drastic change to his bread-and-butter are slim.
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, yet it appears that's exactly where the Panthers are with Meeks. So what will he really be able to change? How can he create wine out of a unit that has been decidedly watery for the past two seasons?
The answer could be deceptively simple: Less scheming and more attacking. The one thing Meeks will try to do above everything else is make Carolina's sack-and-interception-challenged defense more aggressive.
By the end of last season, Carolina looked equally apathetic against both the pass and run. The defense gave up chunks of yardage as the secondary sat in soft zones and the front four generated little pass rush.
The Panthers looked timid and confused, and players like Derrick Ward, Larry Fitzgerald and Drew Brees had field days as a result.
Enter Meeks. A big reason guys like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were pass-rush monsters in Indy is he let them use their speed in one-on-one matchups. This negated their supposed "lack of size" by not bogging them down with Xs-and-Os assignments.
Meanwhile, safety Bob Sanders was all over the rest of the field. He and and his teammates took advantage of the chaos caused by the pressure for 52 interceptions over the past three seasons (compared to Carolina 's 40).
"Guys flying around to the ball—that was (Meeks') main thing," Panther safety Chris Harris said after an early meeting with his new coach. "We're going to make mistakes; we're putting in a new defense. But if you make a mistake, do it full speed. That's one thing he's beat home."
Offensive tackle Jordan Gross also indicated that Meeks has been stressing reaction and simplicity.
"Right now it's making our lives easy (on offense) because they are running pretty simple stuff," Gross said recently. "In the past our defense ran everything you could think of and that made it tough.
"But it's letting the players play and we have some great athletes on defense and some hard-nosed players and I think it's going to let them do what they do and make plays on their own without out-tricking anybody. I know we have a lot to see from defense yet but I know the defensive guys are excited about (the new system)."
In Harris, Peppers, linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Harris, ends Charles Johnson and rookie Everette Brown and cornerback Chris Gamble, the Panthers have guys who, on paper, should be able to excel with their athleticism.
Then again, that's what they were supposed to be doing last year when Trgovac "simplified' things in the offseason, and the end result was disappointing to say the least.
Perhaps it was injuries (Carolina began to slide after Beason and tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis were hurt late). Perhaps it was lack of leadership (for all of his talent, Peppers has never been known as much of a leader yet he's become one of Carolina's most veteran players).
Meeks will find out soon. But all he can do is make the most of what he has, and seven years in Indianapolis shows he'll have guys getting to the quarterback and he'll have the secondary going after the ball when it's in the air.
Sounds simple, but the Panthers have been stumped by the problem nonetheless. No matter who they voted for, Carolina fans agree: That's the change we need.
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