The 2009 Carolina Defense: Inside Out to Outside In

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The 2009 Carolina Defense: Inside Out to Outside In
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

OK, start by placing your hands right here, like this.  Adjust your stance, balance on this foot but disguise it if you can, and prepare to spring in this direction on the snap. 

Concentrate on putting the drive block back on his heels. Get your hat in the crack and sit on the pressure. 

You can't do all that if you don't line up properly. So again, place your hands here and only here, and get it right!  A few inches here or there, and you lose the battle before it starts. And for Christ's sake, mind the gap!

When you're on the defensive line, you have a split second to react before you're engaged in the play.  Proper placement, stance, and positioning are the key to success. 

You don't have any time to react, you have to be perfect before the play starts and you have to know exactly what you're going to do when the ball is snapped.  In the beginning, during the play, and even at the end it's still going to be all about technique and execution. 

And when you focus on technique and execution, you don't do it in a vacuum.  The line executes in a particular way, and the linebackers will be ready to take advantage of that and if they execute properly, all the gaps will be filled and the play will take place on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage. 

If one element breaks down between the units, the back will spring for a decent gain or the quarterback will have time to find a receiver.

However you think about it, setting up the defensive line for success is complicated.  And when your defense depends on proper line play, everything needs to be mapped out and executed properly by all parties on the defense.

Even the defensive backs have to know where to be at any given time, even when the play may be elsewhere. Their teammates and the called play depend on proper execution for success.

Welcome to the Mike Trgovac playbook, described by players as one of the most complex in the NFL

Trgovac was once considered a pretty good defensive coordinator around the league.  When he took control of the Panthers, his defensive line consisted of Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Brentson Buckner, and Kris Jenkins. 

Starting with that foundation, his defense was the NFL's eighth-best in 2003, and it led the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance.  The "D" slipped to 20th in 2004, but by 2005, the unit was third in the league, and in 2006 it enjoyed a seventh place finish. 

In 2007, though, starting with the retirement of key veteran Mike Rucker, the Carolina defense slipped to 16th. Then in the first half of 2008, Trgovac simplified the playbook and the Panthers responded by turning in a top-five defense through eight games. 

But during the second half of the season, the defense collapsed, going from 15.9 points allowed to 25.3. Across an entire season that number would be good enough for only 28th in the league. 

It wasn't just the teams they played, either.  In the first eight games, opponents averaged 8.5 points less than normal when they played the Panthers. In the second eight games, they averaged 2.1 points more than they normally did. Something had to change.

Although he wasn't fired, Mike Trgovac left Carolina after the brutal playoff performance, and the Panthers ushered in the Ron Meeks era.

There are some parallels with the situation Meeks inherited in Indianapolis in 2002.  In 2001, the Indianapolis Colts had a great offense, but they were last in the league in points allowed and 29th on defense overall. 

The following spring they spent most of their draft picks on the defensive side of the line, including an undersized but explosive defensive end named Dwight Freeney.

In 2008 the Panthers finished with one of the league's worst defenses, and spent their first three draft picks on defensive players. The first player they chose was an undersized but explosive defensive end named Everette Brown.

In camp the Panthers have been changing the way they do business on "D". Where the ex-lineman Trgovac laid his defensive foundation on the line, the old defensive back Meeks begins with the secondary. Swarming to the ball is preached, and speed is king.  Players finish practice with sprints.

Trgovac's defenses were complex, relying on sharp execution and misdirection to prevent opposing offenses from finding and exploiting holes. His defensive backs needed to move according to the playbook, and the leaders were like conductors of a defensive orchestra. They directed players to go here and pointed there, and young players often found themselves out of position or in each other's way.

Meeks's defense is simple. The "Cover Two" emphasizes reacting to the ball and staying behind the play.  Players get in their zone, read the play, and react accordingly.  Where Trgovac would shift players around and try to create mismatches, Meeks will play more straight-up and shut down the big play. 

Trgovac wanted his players in certain positions on the field, so if a player got beat, there would be someone in another area to provide cover. Meeks wants his players to forget strict positioning, but instead cover zones of the field and swarm to the area where the ball is. 

Trgovac brought pressure from all over the field.  It was common to see a defensive end drop into coverage while the weakside linebacker or a safety blitzed. His units were set up to bring pressure on the quarterback quickly, to hurry the throw.

Meeks just turns his line loose to go get the quarterback, and trusts the secondary to give them time to get there.

In the secondary, Trgovac's defenses were deliberate and controlled. Meeks likes his defensive backs to be fast and instinctive.

Where it's been all technique and execution in the past, this year the linemen will be given a lot more freedom to get to the quarterback any way they can. Defensive line coach Brian Baker is emphasizing exploding off the ball and quick changes of direction in his drills.  

It's going to be a big change for Panthers faithful. While Trgovac liked the blitz much more than Meeks, Meeks's players have freedom to react instead of execute, and it looks far more aggressive.

The defense will be a lot easier to understand for players on both sides of the ball, but that hasn't made the "Cover Two" any less effective in other systems where it's been installed.

Will it work here? In 2002 the Colts turned their young, inexperienced defense over to Ron Meeks and gave him that explosive defensive end. The unit responded by going from 29th to 8th.

And as far as personnel are concerned, the Panthers have three things that the 2001 Colts lacked—a Pro Bowl defensive end, a Pro Bowl middle linebacker, and a shutdown corner. 

It could be a very, very good year in Carolina.

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