The once-vaunted defense has surrendered at least 24 points in each of the team's last five contests. Last year, only two opponents accomplished this feat during the entire season.
“We’re not executing, we’re not making plays and we’re not competing hard enough,” veteran linebacker and defensive leader Thomas Davis told the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person Monday. “From the film we just watched [against the Green Bay Packers], we’ve got a lot of guys that on a consistent basis are not going out and competing hard enough, and it’s showing up.”
On average, the Panthers are surrendering 87.1 more yards per game this year compared to last season.
|Panthers' defensive ranking: 2013 vs. 2014|
|Year||Total Defense||Run Defense||Pass Defense||Points per game|
There isn't a specific area to identify that could be fixed or changed. All three levels of the defense have disappointed. Failure along each unit allowed one of the NFL's best defenses to transform into one of the league's worst in less than a year's time.
The game is won in the trenches. It isn't simply an old football cliche; it's one of the reasons why the Panthers continue to struggle this season.
In the middle of the defense, defensive tackles are taught from an early point in their career that their individual success can be determined by those making plays around them.
However, the big boys in the middle must be able to consistently take on blocks to allow the linebackers behind them to make plays. Last season Star Lotulelei, Colin Cole, Dwan Edwards and Kawann Short were far more consistent in doing the dirty work up front.
The up-and-down play from Carolina's defensive tackles have caught observers off guard, as SI.com's Doug Farrar tweeted:
The specific play Farrar mentioned was an 89-yard touchdown gallop from Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard, and the long run was directly attributable to play of the defensive tackles.
Below is the Panthers' pre-snap alignment before Bernard's touchdown. Cole lined up in his normal spot as the team's starting 1-technique (outside shoulder of the center), while Lotulelei was opposite as the 3-technique (outside shoulder of the guard).
Once the play begins, neither is able to hold his ground, and both get washed out of the play as the Bengals offensive line drives them to their right.
Lotulelei in particular could not withstand a double-team by the Bengals' right guard and tackle and was driven nearly 10 yards to his right. Cole wasn't uprooted to the same degree, but the two are almost on top of each other as Bernard cuts directly behind those blocks with nothing but green grass in front of him.
The Bengals running back did have to bounce off an attempted tackle from one of the linebackers, but the rest of the defense completely lost their gap integrity due to the defensive tackles getting blown off the ball.
While the defensive tackles have been inconsistent this season, the team's defensive ends are nonexistent.
The loss of Greg Hardy to the exempt/commissioner's permission list due to an ongoing trial proved to be an even bigger loss than initially anticipated.
Last season, Hardy finished the season with 15 sacks and led the league with 25 quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The website credited the Panthers with 4.5 quarterback hits per game in 2013. The number dropped to 3.7 this season with Hardy out of the lineup.
Furthermore, not a single defensive end on Carolina's roster currently claims a positive grade. Three of the team's five worst defenders this season, as graded by Pro Football Focus, are defensive ends.
Charles Johnson, who is supposed to be the veteran leader at the position, continues to struggle defending the run. To Johnson's credit, the defensive end started to pick up his game in recent weeks and notched a sack in each of the past three contests. His increased presence off the edge can only help as the Panthers attempt to improve.
Overall, a stout front sets the tone for the defense, and the Panthers defensive line has been anything but stout this season.
Despite owning two of the game's best linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Davis, the Panthers still have two problems along the second line of defense.
First, Davis and particularly Kuechly might be tackling machines, but they've been caught out of position numerous times this season due to aggressive play.
“If you look at last year’s defense, even when guys made mistakes or I missed a tackle or somebody else missed a tackle, we had guys that were flying to the ball and running around and making plays,” Davis told Person. “It covered up for some of the stuff that was going on. But right now, we just…we have a lack of that going on right now.”
Earlier in the season the Panthers were gashed by the Pittsburgh Steelers because of overpursuit.
It's hard to place too much blame on these linebackers, though, with Kuechly still leading the NFL with 82 total tackles, even if he lost his cool Sunday. Davis also continues to be a steady presence despite the aforementioned poor performance against the Steelers.
The primary concern at linebacker is at strong-side linebacker, even though it's only a part-time position due to the abundance of nickel defenses trying to stop prolific passing attacks around the NFL.
Chase Blackburn and A.J. Klein have split time at the position this season due to injuries to the veteran. Blackburn, who is in his 10th season, is a consummate professional, but he can be exploited, particularly in the passing game due to a lack of athleticism. Klein also looked lost in coverage at times this season and currently sports a minus-1.4 grade from Pro Football Focus. Neither of these Sam linebackers owns a positive grade.
With Kuechly and Davis receiving the lion's share of repetitions once again this season, their play can have a heavy influence on any game. However, it's the team's third starter at linebacker which presents the biggest concern in the Panthers defense.
It didn't take Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers long to exploit the Panthers secondary Sunday. On the team's first drive of the afternoon, Rodgers connected with wide receiver Jordy Nelson for a 59-yard touchdown pass.
Both the cornerback and the safety were at fault for the Panthers, albeit at varying degrees.
Carolina was in Cover 2 prior to the snap (see: below).
Once the ball is snapped, cornerback Melvin White never jammed Nelson at the line of scrimmage to slow his route. White whiffed and went directly into a trail technique because he expects safety help over the top that never comes.
Roman Harper was tasked with the deep half of the field during this play. Harper takes a horrifically bad angle toward Nelson, who caught the ball at the 39-yard line. The veteran safety's angle took him toward the 30-yard line. The crafty receiver easily undercut Harper's trajectory and didn't have any resistance on his way to the end zone.
Poor safety play, as shown above, only exacerbates the Panthers' lack of talent at cornerback.
Charles Godfrey, who can play both safety and cornerback, became the team's scapegoat after the Panthers' 38-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers. The Panthers released the seven-year veteran Wednesday after his pitiful effort.
Godfrey's release sends a message: Perform or the Panthers will find someone else to do the job. In this particular case, rookie Bene Benwikere will resume his role as the team's primary nickelback.
If the team isn't winning up front along the defensive line, the Panthers secondary will continue to be exploited. Last year, the secondary was hidden to a degree because of how well the front seven played. However, the defensive backs aren't talented enough as a whole to hold up if they're asked to play a bigger part within the team's scheme.
No secondary can cover forever. Carolina's secondary is even less inclined to do so.
Despite an uninspiring and even dumbfounding start to the season for the Panthers defense, the team still sits atop the NFC South with a 3-3-1 record.
“As bad as we’ve played, as much as you (media members) have been on us about how bad we looked, we still have a chance to be right where we want to be at the end of the year,” Harper told Person Tuesday. “We’ve got to seize this opportunity.”
The schedule doesn't let up for the Panthers either.
Over the next three weeks, Carolina faces the Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints game will be especially important, because both teams will be competing to be the best team in the worst division in football.
All Carolina needs to run away with the division is improved play from its defense. There are glaring holes at each level of the Panthers defense, but there are also a few playmakers on the field as well.
The Panthers aren't going to magically return to the caliber of defense they were a season ago, but there is clearly room for improvement. By limiting mistakes and simply playing sound football, it should be good enough for Carolina to make the playoffs despite all the problems the organization faced this season.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFC South for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.