The Panthers allowed fresh-off-the-street Kevin Smith to have a career day
Cam Newton might be the most critiqued NFL rookie in recent memory. Most were haters. Some were believers. Then the season started and Cam made Panthers fans excited that the team made him the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Doubters in the media changed their tune (mostly) and ate a big plate of crow. People were crowning him the next big thing after only a few weeks in the league. Now that the Panthers have fallen to a conference worst 2-8 record, people are starting to jump off the bandwagon.
But enough on Cam. Don't get me wrong. I am a believer. The kid has swagger, the kid has skills and the kid is a natural born leader. He is going to be very, very good. But the Panthers' problems aren't because of Cam throwing untimely interceptions. The Panthers' problems on defense and here is why.
In four seasons, Jon Beason (52) is already second in tackles in Panthers team history
Coming in to the 2011 season, most experts agreed the Panthers needed help at defensive tackle. Veteran Maake Kemoeatu suffered a major injury in the 2010 preseason and the team failed to find an adequate replacement last year.
After the 2010 season the Panthers tried filling this hole by signing 10-year veteran Ron Edwards. Edwards lasted all of one day at training camp before tearing a tricep muscle and he landed on Injured Reserve just a few days later.
Then came the big injuries. The Panthers' leader on defense and one of the top linebackers in the league, Jon Beason, had an Achilles Tendon injury in Week 1 at Arizona and linebacker Thomas Davis, who had fought back from two ACL injuries in as many years, was lost for the season in Week 2 when he had yet another ACL tear.
Beason and Davis were without a doubt the best two defensive players on the team. Losing two players of their caliber would be hard for any team to overcome, but a young team with little depth had basically no chance. To date, the team has placed six defensive players on IR.
Ron Rivera's team has struggled in his first year as head coach
I think people are quick to forget that this team finished 2010 with the worst record in the NFL. Teams that finish so poorly and then start the next year with a rookie QB and a rookie Head Coach don't normally have instant success. It is hard to blame coach Ron Rivera for everything, but it surely has something to do with their inability to stop anybody on defense.
The Panthers are currently 30th in the NFL in defending the run and 27th in overall defense. Rivera said he would bring an attacking style on defense. A style that new Defensive Coordinator, Sean McDermott, utilized in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, due to the amount of injuries, especially at linebacker, the team has felt that they could not successfully implement that aggressive style with so many inexperienced players playing so much.
Charles Johnson (95) is the Panthers most experienced Defensive Lineman
Most experts will talk about the importance of a defensive line's ability to stuff the run and get pressure on the QB without help. With their 4-3 scheme, the experience level of the Panthers starting defensive line goes like this: Left DE (fifth year), DT (rookie), DT (rookie) and Right DE (second year). I doubt there is a team in the NFL with so little experience up front.
The team spent third round draft picks in 2011 on DTs Sione Fua (Stanford) and Terrell McClain (USF). The team seems pleased with their progress so far, but how much can you really expect starting two rookie third rounders? These two guys could grow into a nice tandem, but it won't happen in 2011 and even moving forward, they will still likely need a lot more help than they currently have.
Charles Johnson landed a whopping six-year, $72 million deal in the offseason, and while CJ has played well, he hasn't had much help and teams have been able to double team him on basically every play. Second year DE Greg Hardy has played well, but is still a little raw and is better against the pass than he is against the run.
The Panthers have struggled to stop teams when it matters the most
Charles Johnson is probably the biggest playmaker currently playing. Beason and Davis are both incredible playmakers and the Panthers have missed them greatly. But if the team is going to overcome their losses due to injury, somebody has to step up and make plays. They are young and banged up and don't have the skills to just stifle teams. Therefore, they need to create turnovers, a lot of them.
The first half of the Detroit game this past Sunday was the perfect example of how the Panthers could win games. They created turnovers on the Lions' first three possessions and led the Lions 24-7 in the second quarter. After that, the panthers created zero turnovers and gave up an astounding six touchdowns on the Lions last eight possessions.
When healthy, this defensive unit will be in pretty good shape, but unfortunately, that won't be until 2012 at the earliest. The Panthers seem to have addressed their issues on offense. They finished with the worst offense in the NFL in 2010 in points scored and yards. They drafted Newton, signed tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey and brought in Offensive Coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
Through 10 games this year, the team has made a drastic improvement on offense, currently ranking fifth in the NFL in total offense. Now, Rivera and his staff need to spend the rest of 2011 evaluating their defensive players. Then, they need to use the draft and free agency to upgrade on the defensive line and in the secondary. If the team can draft well and make a few key acquisitions, the playoffs might not be that far away for this team.