New Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Ron Meeks has a tall task.
He will be charged with taking over a defense that began the 2008 season as one of the best and most feared units in the league, but ended it with a blank stare after watching the Cardinals do as they pleased while dismantling the Panthers in an embarrassing 33-13 home loss in the NFC Divisional round.
The Panthers are looking forward now with a new vision.
After former defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac turned down a contract extension to take a job as the Green Bay Packers’ defensive line coach, the team realized that it was time to look for answers.
When Tony Dungy retired from the Indianapolis Colts, Meeks stepped down from his position as defensive coordinator. When the news of Trgovac’s departure from Carolina came out, there were a few intriguing candidates for the Panthers to mull over.
Kansas City had parted ways with Herm Edwards, a defensive mastermind, and Jim Haslett was free from the St. Louis Rams. The Panthers ultimately stuck with a model of success in Meeks, who won a Super Bowl with the Colts in 2007.
In his first mini-camp with the team last weekend in Charlotte, Meeks quickly made it apparent that he was no Trgovac. A former defensive back who is still in great shape, Meeks could be seen sprinting around the practice field while yelling direction, praise, and criticism—sometimes all at once.
“Meeks is a fiery guy, out there running around,” Panthers Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason said. “You can see he’s in good shape so he can keep up with us.”
Meeks has said that he will not execute a defensive scheme identical to the “Tampa Two,″ made famous by Dungy, but that his formations, coverages, and packages will resemble it.
“Obviously we’ve had some success with this system in Indianapolis,” Meeks said. “Working under Tony Dungy, obviously I picked up some things there that are a big influence in what I’m doing. But we want to make sure we’re doing the things that can magnify and produce some good results based on the skill set that we have.”
The most important part of that skill set, defensive end Julius Peppers, is still hanging in a purgatory of sorts.
The Panthers designated Peppers as the team’s franchise player in February, but the four-time Pro Bowler has yet to sign the $16.7 million tender. Peppers has publicly stated that he wants out of Carolina, showing a particular interest in playing in a 3-4 defensive scheme as the blitzing linebacker.
After trade rumors with New England fizzled out in March, there has been no real push for Peppers on the market. With draft day having come and gone, it’s unlikely that a team will forfeit the hefty price for Peppers at this point.
With that being said, all signs are pointing toward Peppers’ return to Carolina for at least one more season. A switch to his college position as right defensive end proved helpful as Peppers notched a career high 14.5 sacks in 2008.
Peppers would likely thrive in a system run by Meeks, who coached Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis into two of the more imposing defensive ends in the NFL.
Another Panther who will benefit from Meeks’ success at defensive end will be rookie Everette Brown, for whom the Panthers traded their 2010 first round pick to steal at No. 43 overall.
Brown fits the mold of the two aforementioned Colts defensive ends. Labeled as undersized at 6′2″ and 256 lbs., Brown hopes to experience the same kind of success that Freeney (6′1″ and 268) and Mathis (6′2″ and 245) experienced under Meeks' defensive guidance.
In the scheme that Meeks is likely to implement in Carolina, the basic Tampa Two principles will be key.
That means that the bulk of the pressure on the opposing quarterback will come from the front four on the defensive line.
That means that whoever ends up suiting up on the line for the Panthers will have to be able to penetrate teams’ offensive lines quicker and more efficiently, setting up the potential for the speedy Brown to help the Panthers right away.
Brown led the ACC last year with 13.5 sacks at Florida State.
Meeks’ scheme will also include opportunities for two of the unit’s biggest play makers to showcase their abilities. Meeks pointed out Beason and cornerback Chris Gamble as players who would have a major role in the success of the new and (hopefully) improved defense.
While it is far too soon to tell whether Meeks will provide the Panthers with the answer to the seemingly never ending riddle of trying to find a way to carry solid production on both sides of the ball throughout the season—his first impression on the players, his fellow coaches, and the media present at the Panthers rookie mini-camp was positive to say the least.
And for that, Panthers fans have reason to look forward to the 2009 season.
This article originally appeared at NFLTouchdown.com. Check out this article and more from Austin Penny by clicking here.