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2013 CAROLINA PANTHERS

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Carolina Panthers' defensive line built to solidify corners

GM Dave Gettleman followed a familiar blueprint to try to shore up the Panthers' defensive secondary.

Carolina Panthers secondary coach Steve Wilks had a sense in April that new general manager Dave Gettleman might get him some help – not necessarily in the form of defensive backs, but pass rushers.

Wilks was familiar with Gettleman’s history with the New York Giants, who won two Super Bowls in a five-year span with defenses built around tenacious defensive fronts and pieced-together secondaries.

So when Gettleman took a pair of defensive tackles and did not select a defensive back during his first Panthers’ draft, Wilks was not surprised.

Nor was Wilks displeased.

“Just understanding Gettleman’s background and seeing the success they had. They won two Super Bowls, and it all started up front,” Wilks said. “He came in building a philosophy as far as wanting to establish the offensive and defensive lines. And I agree. Because I believe if you have a great pass rush, it’s going to help your secondary out.”

The Panthers had a good pass rush last season when defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy combined for 23.5 sacks, the second-best total by a tandem in team history and third-highest by a pass-rushing duo in the league in 2012.

But after re-signing Dwan Edwards and drafting Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the first two rounds, the Panthers hope they can improve their interior rush and, in turn, their pass coverage.

“All good defenses have a good D-line. They get pressure on the quarterback. They get sacks,” said cornerback D.J. Moore, who signed as a free agent with the Panthers during the offseason. “So when you see that they (drafted) guys that can pressure the pocket, especially up the middle where the quarterback can’t step up, it’s going to benefit the back end.”

The members of the Panthers’ defensive backfield are far from household names in NFL circles.

Carolina cut its top defensive back – veteran corner and former first-round pick Chris Gamble – in a salary cap move, and did not add any top-tier free agents.

Six of the team’s top nine defensive backs were drafted in the fifth round or lower, and none has gone to a Pro Bowl. Free safety Charles Godfrey, a five-year starter, is the closest thing the Panthers have to a star in the secondary.

But Moore, who played his first four seasons in Chicago, said the Panthers have the makings of a successful secondary, regardless of their Q rating.

“Everybody’s into the big free agency thing. So if you don’t sign a real big name, it’s ... viewed as (not) doing much,” Moore said. “I feel like once you give guys opportunities, every year somebody steps up. So I feel like even the guys from last year or the guys that came in, once they get the opportunity to play, with all the competition out here we’ll be fine.”

Tampa Bay, one of Carolina’s NFC South rivals, made one of the biggest offseason splashes by trading for Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Bucs used their second-round pick on Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks.

In a division marked by strong quarterback play, the Falcons lost three corners during the offseason. They released Dunta Robinson in a cost-cutting move, and did not re-sign Brent Grimes or Christopher Owens.

The Falcons addressed the position in the draft, trading up to take Washington corner Desmond Trufant 22nd overall.

After giving up more yards than any team in NFL history, the Saints signed free agent corner and New Orleans native Keenan Lewis to a five-year, $26.3 million deal. New Orleans drafted Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro 15th – one spot after the Panthers took Lotulelei.

Meanwhile, the Panthers added three defensive backs via free agency – Moore, veteran corner Drayton Florence and safety Mike Mitchell, a second-round pick by Oakland who was a backup for four seasons with the Raiders.

The Panthers got a taste of life without Gamble last season when he missed the final 12 games with a shoulder injury.

Going mainly with young, inexperienced corners in soft zone coverages, Carolina allowed opponents to complete a league-high 66.8 percent of their passes. But the Panthers limited the damage: The 223 passing yards they allowed per game ranked 13th among 32 teams.

Wilks believes the experienced gained by young corners Josh Thomas and Josh Norman will help them this season.

“When you look back and see how those guys performed the latter part of the year, I thought they stepped up, particularly J.T.,” Wilks said. “Josh (Norman) has come in this year, he’s focused, he’s more disciplined, he’s understanding the concepts. Last year he didn’t.”

Norman may have the most raw talent among the Panthers’ defensive backs. The fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina had a four-interception practice last summer at training camp.

He started the first 12 games and his 73 tackles were the most among Carolina’s corners. But many of those hits came on receivers who had caught passes in front of him.

“At Coastal he had to try to make every play,” Wilks said. “You don’t have to do that at this level, and that’s what he’s starting to understand.”

Coach Ron Rivera said Florence, who has 99 starts over his 10-year career, and Moore have brought “veteran savvy and know-how” to the secondary.

“The neat thing is watching Drayton work with the young guys,” Rivera said. “Here’s a guy who’s been in the league a long time and has a good rapport with the players, and he’s shared a lot of that with the young guys.”

Rivera said Godfrey is the only defensive back assured of a starting spot. The Panthers will use this week’s three-day minicamp, as well as training camp, to figure out the combinations in the secondary.

Norman and Thomas received the bulk of the first-team reps at corner during the organized team activities practice that was open to the media last week. Rivera said if the pair of fifth-round picks are the best corners, they will be the starters.

The Giants’ secondaries during their Super Bowl-winning seasons in 2007 and 2011 were dotted with first- and second-round picks, although the starting safeties in ‘07 were undrafted James Butler and fifth-rounder Gibril Wilson.

The 2011 Giants, who defeated New England 21-17 in the Super Bowl, had the league’s 29th-ranked pass defense.

But New York made up for any coverage deficiencies during its Super Bowl seasons with a fierce pass rush led by Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants were first in the league with 53 sacks in 2007, and tied for third in 2011 with 48.

Rivera hopes the Panthers flourish with a similar approach this season, with Johnson, Hardy and others forcing rushed throws and the secondary capitalizing.

“The way we finished up the season last year, the things that we did, I’d like to believe we can carry that forward,” Rivera said. “But I also think the improvement we’ve made at the defensive line, I think that’s big for us.”

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