Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Breaking Down The Carolina Panthers Defense

 I said it back in August as you can see at the tweet up top that this Panthers front seven was going to be very good. 10 games into the season and the Panthers are 7-3 and coming off of big wins over the 49ers and Patriots. The national media is beginning to take notice of this team that has talent that stretches far beyond Cam Newton. Names like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are being thrown around on ESPN on a regular basis as they are finding out now what I knew back in the summer. What has made this team and its defense become one of the best in the league this year? The answer is something you may not hear from most people so listen up.

One thing most people fail to realize when speaking about the Panthers and the improvements they have made this year is that they were 10th in total defense last year according to NFL.com. They were only allowing 333 yards-per-game with many of those being rushing yards. They were ranked 14th in rush defense and 13th in pass defense, so just above the middle of the pack is where Carolina stood at the end of last season, which isn't that bad to begin with but they still had holes to plug up.

That's where rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short come into play. Most people will focus on Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson and rightfully so, but these two are the reason for Carolina's vast improvement on the defensive side of the ball. Many people raised eyebrows when the Panthers took back-to-back defensive tackles in the first and second round of the 2013 NFL Draft but clearly it was for a reason, they just need guys to plug up some holes and minimize the opposition's run game, and have they ever.

Here is a list of some of the running backs the Panthers have played this year and what they have against the Carolina defense.

Marshawn Lynch: 17 carries 43 yards 2.5 yards per carry No TD's
Frank Gore: 16 Carries 82 yards 5.1 yards per carry No TD's
Adrian Peterson: 10 Carries 62 yards 6.2 yards per carry No TD'S

Those are three of the best backs in the NFL and none of them scored against this Panthers defense, and that’s because Carolina has eliminated big plays. The push they now get on the line of scrimmage from Star and Short helps guys like Mike Mitchell, Kuechly, Davis, Hardy and Charles Johnson make big plays and eliminate huge gains from the opposition.

This front seven has helped the Panthers secondary which had questions all over the place before the season started. Let's start with the safety position. Robert Lester, an undrafted free agent from Alabama, started every single game for Alabama's 2011 National Championship team. His eight interceptions during his sophomore season were second in school history and somehow this guy slipped through the cracks.
Charles Godfrey was injured during the early stages of the season for the Panthers and Lester was thrown into the fire and all he has done is produce. In 6 games he has 18 tackles, 3 interceptions and a fumble recovery while providing stability to one of the weakest parts of this team.

The other safety on this Panthers defense signed in the off season after 4 seasons with the Oakland Raiders. Mike Mitchell has brought an edge, and a certain swagger to this defense that hasn't been in Carolina since the days of Mike Minter. He hits hard and fears nobody coming over the middle, go watch some film on him if you don't believe me. He has been one of the most unsung heroes in the NFL as he has produced two-and-a-half sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. Mitchell and Lester have been a huge reason for this defense's success.

Then you have to look at some of these nickel and dime corners on the team such as Quintin Mikell, Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence. These guys are not out there on every possession but have all made an impact on the game in different parts of the season. These guys have all combined for two forced fumbles, one sack, three interceptions and two touchdowns. That's a lot of impact from three guys who don't play every down, and it speaks volumes to the depth of this defense.

Then you have the Panthers defensive ends of Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson who make up one of the best tandems in the NFL. These guys have combined for two forced fumbles and 13.5 sacks. They pose match-up problems on defense for just about anybody in the NFL due to their premier pass rushing ability. When it comes to game planning for this Panthers defense it's basically pick your poison with these two.

Last, but certainly not least, you have the linebacking duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Both are exceptional at getting from sideline to sideline and making tackles. They have combined for 170 tackles, 4 interceptions, 4 sacks and 1 forced fumble but the intangibles make them Pro Bowl caliber linebackers.

Luke Kuechly is regarded by many experts as the best linebacker in football and rightfully so, this guy led the league in tackles as a rookie. He does an exceptional job at calling audibles at the line of scrimmage and putting his defense in the best position to win football games.

Thomas Davis has had a long road to get where he is at tearing his ACL three times in three years and he is back playing some of the best football of his career on a premier NFL defense. No player in NFL history has recovered from three ACL tears but Davis is the first and to see him playing at the level he is now is a joy to watch.

So, when you speak about this Carolina defense don't just pay attention to Johnson, Hardy, Davis and Kuechly but also observe guys like Short, Star, Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell. This defense is loaded and the secret is out.

For my take on the Panthers big 24-20 win on Monday Night Football versus the New England Patriots check out the video above.

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