SPARTANBURG Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera walks over to talk at the beginning of practice Tuesday. He smiles because his players are energetic after getting rained out Monday night. I ask if he has a few minutes this week to talk, figuring well get together Wednesday or Thursday or Friday.
Rivera walks up after practice later Tuesday and asks, Is this a good time for you?
I work him into my schedule and we talk as we walk off the field.
Q: What worries you about your football team?
Obviously the performance of our defense as a whole. We have to improve based on what happened last year. We got better at the end of the year but were still an unknown. I know that (linebacker) Jon Beason is back, I know we drafted (linebacker) Luke Kuechly, we made some upgrades at our safety position, our safeties have come together as a unit, were very competitive at the corner position and our pass rush looks like its improved. But we dont know.
Q: I think the most suspect component of the team is the pass rush. Did you do enough before the season to upgrade your rush? Does it concern you?
Yes it does. Weve got to get (defensive end) Charles Johnson doing the things that hes capable of to get him going. A lot of it starts with him. Hes got that kind of ability. We saw flashes of it last year but at the end of the year it wore on him. Charles took more snaps than I would have liked. He was averaging about 58 a game.
Q: How many would you like?
Id like to see around 40. That way hes fresh in the fourth quarter. When a guy starts taking 58 snaps by the fourth quarter hes not as effective as he is earlier. So our rotation has to be better and if were not getting (to the quarterback) weve got to become aggressive and do different things in terms of pressures, do different things using personal groupings in terms of adding extra linebackers.
Q: What kind of groupings?
An odd front would be a definite possibility. A three-three: three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
Q: Has a pass-rusher other than Johnson emerged?
I like what Im seeing from (end) Greg Hardy. Im pretty fired up about what we can do with him. I think (rookie end) Frank (Alexander) adds a little excitement. I think youre going to get very consistent play from (end) Antwan Applewhite. But hes a jack of all trades. (End) Eric Norwood is flashing, flashing to the guy we saw two seasons ago. Weve had a couple young guys flash as well. (Rookie tackle) Nate Chandler flashed. (Tackle) Terrell McClain has some explosiveness right now but Im not sure hes confident in that.
Q: Every camp has surprises. Who has surprised you?
I will say right now defensive back Josh Thomas is really flashing very well, No. 22, hes done some really good things. I think (wide receiver) Armanti (Edwards) has flashed. This is his third camp so if he continues that would be great for us. When you talk about guys getting better and progressing he really truly has progressed. (Wide receiver) Kealoha (Pilares) is flashing. Hes having a very good camp. (Safety) Charles Godfreys has had an outstanding, outstanding training camp.
Q: How many starting positions are still being contested?
Probably five really good position battles are going on. Were pretty well set with our No. 2 receiver (Brandon LaFell). But our No. 3 receiver is still a battle. Is it going to be (Louis) Murphy, is it going to be (Seyi) Ajirotutu, is it going to be Kealoha? Our defensive tackles are battling it out. It looks like Ron Edwards is going to be the nose but whos going to be the three? I think Captain Munnerlyn has a foothold on (cornerback opposite Chris Gamble) but theyll still battling it out for the third position.
Q: We write about the scuffles in camp. Why dont you have more?
We have a point system in camp. The truth of the matter is we havent deducted any yet.
Q: Not even Captain Munnerlyn?
Captains been close. But to his benefit hes restrained himself. (Center) Jeff Byers is another guy. I was kidding him that I had the over-under and right now youre under. Dont hurt your team. Theyve been really good about that.
Q: Last season you became emotional when you anticipated your first game as an NFL head coach. Is the job everything you had hoped?
It really is. Its been a tremendous dream come true for me part of the way. Well see about the rest of it. What Im truly hoping for is being able to hold that Super Bowl trophy up. I mean it. Im not just saying it because, oh, thats what youre supposed to say. Im like Ryan Kalil (who took out a full-page ad in the Observer that envisioned a Super Bowl victory). Its a matter of time.
If we can do the things were capable of and improve, its up to us. I dont care whats happening in New Orleans or Atlanta or Tampa Bay. As long as were getting better, as long as we do the things that were supposed to do, we have a chance. If we dont then we should get beat.