SPARTANBURG Linebacker Jon Beason, invoking the law of averages, figures fate and fortune have to turn around for the Panthers defense.
Well, I dont think we can do worse than last year, Beason said. New scheme, new head coach, new defensive coordinator, new position coaches, a ton of injuries. I think all those things are in our favor this year. The stage is kind of even right now.
The slate is clean for a defense that caved under the weight of injuries, communication breakdowns and missed tackles under first-year coach Ron Rivera, a former NFL linebacker and longtime defensive coordinator.
The Panthers finished 28th in the NFL in points (26.8) and yards (377.6) allowed per game, and established several low-water marks for defense in the franchises 17-year history.
As the Panthers begin their second training camp under Rivera, many observers believe if Carolina can get its defense even close to the level of the Cam Newton-led offense, the Panthers could be a playoff team.
Its the truth, Beason said. I dont know what we finished, I think it was 27th, 28th, something like that. You cant win with that. They sell tickets, were supposed to win games. We win championships.
Offense, I think, finished fourth or fifth in scoring (fifth at 25.4 points per game). Im looking at it, 28 points, 27 points, whatever it was, that should be a walk in the park.
Rivera believes the return of several starters from injury and increased depth will create more competition and allow defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to diversify his scheme with more three-man fronts and pressure packages than what the Panthers used last season.
Our biggest thing is staying healthy, more so than anything else, Rivera said.
Injuries took a toll
The Panthers took a big hit early last season when defensive tackle Ron Edwards, a free agent signed to fortify the interior line, tore his triceps during his first practice and was lost for the year.
By the end of Week 2, starting linebackers Beason (Achilles) and Thomas Davis (knee) also had sustained season-ending injuries. That began a parade of a team-record 18 players to injured reserve.
Nine of them were defensive players, including six starters who missed a combined 56 games.
The loss of Beason, a captain and owner of four of the top five single-season tackle totals in team history, was particularly jarring.
Losing Jon Beason was a huge blow for us, center Ryan Kalil said. We have him back. Hes the heart and soul of that defense. He sets the tempo.
The injuries forced McDermott, who arrived from Philadelphia with the reputation of an aggressive coordinator whose M.O. was getting pressure on the quarterback, to scale back his attack.
Last year with the injuries we had, kind of took Sean back a little bit, Rivera said. We had to get very basic, very simple.
As a result, the Panthers did not make a lot of the momentum-changing plays that go hand-in-hand with a consistent pass rush. Carolina was 25th in the league with 31 sacks, and tied for 17th with 24 takeaways.
Last seasons Super Bowl teams the Giants and Patriots were hardly dominant on defense. They ranked 27th and 31st, respectively, in yards allowed. But both were among the top in take-aways.
Strong safety Charles Godfrey expects the Panthers to create more turnovers.
Well throw a lot of wrinkles at offenses, Godfrey said. It wont be just, OK, this is what Carolina does. They do a lot of stuff. They blitz, they sit back, they cover, they tackle well, they run to the ball. They create turnovers. Thats what youll see. Thats the defense that we will have this year.
More 3-man fronts
One of those wrinkles will be more reliance on the 3-4, the scheme Rivera ran at San Diego. The Panthers have brought on a couple of former Chargers who played outside linebacker Antwan Applewhite and Jyles Tucker. Eric Norwood is best suited as a rush linebacker rather than lining up in a three-point stance, while Rivera believes linebacker Jason Williams also could be effective in the 3-4.
The 3-4 adds a little bit of doubt in peoples minds. You start with a 4-3 base and you move into things, you can create some situations for your opponents, Rivera said. We will look at those things to mix up what we want to do and what we want to become.
Creating confusion for the opponent is one thing. McDermott doesnt want his players to be confused.
The more looks you can present to an offense, obviously the tougher it is on an offense, McDermott said. At the same time you have to make sure that your players totally understand what youre doing inside and out.
That was not always the case last season. With Beason going down in Week 1 at Arizona, the defensive checks and signals did not always get relayed from the linebackers to the secondary.
Besides the communication issues, the Panthers had more fundamental problems like tackling. Free safety Sherrod Martin was the chief offender, although he was not alone.
Everything with the Panthers is going to fall on the defense, said former Panthers cornerback Eric Davis, now an NFL Network analyst. They can score. If you can score 21 points you have a shot every game, and they can score. Cam is amazing. ...
Defensively, can they stop anybody? Are they going to get better play out of their safeties? Are they going to get some consistency out of the cornerback position?
We have a chance
McDermott praised the offseason moves made by general manager Marty Hurney to create more competition. Three of the teams seven draft picks will compete for immediate playing time on defense linebacker Luke Kuechly (first round), end Frank Alexander (fourth) and cornerback Josh Norman (fifth).
You look at every position where we were a year ago compared to where we are now, youre looking at great competition at most every position, McDermott said.
The position battles at the No. 2 corner spot (incumbent Captain Munnerlyn vs. Norman and Brandon Hogan) and strong safety (Martin vs. free agent pickup Haruki Nakamura) figure to be the most-watched. But Rivera said competition at defensive line and linebacker, where Davis is trying to become the first player to return from three ACL surgeries on the same knee, should be intense, as well.
NFL Networks Michael Lombardi is among the experts who believe all the Panthers need is a little bit of defense to contend for a playoff spot.
They couldnt rush the passer last year, they couldnt stay healthy, they had so many injuries. If they can complement this offense ... Lombardi said. I know Ron Rivera spent this whole summer thinking about, If my defense can play to a level I expect it to, I have a chance to be a playoff team.
Lombardi was not far off.
We have a chance to be a playoff team, Rivera said. Were going through some uncharted territory with a young quarterback. Second season, people know a little bit more about him. Some of the weapons are changing a little bit. We just need to make sure as we grow, he grows.
I think if the defense is solid, we have a chance.