Outside linebacker Chase Blackburn doesn’t need to look at the NFL statistics to know the Carolina Panthers’ defense is playing well.
All Blackburn does is hit play when watching the game tapes and he’s reminded how the Panthers are playing fundamentally sound team defense.
“Corners are tackling well. We’re pressuring the quarterback. We’ve been flying around. You turn on the film, guys are running,” Blackburn said this week. “Doesn’t matter if it’s a D-lineman retracing (in pursuit), a cornerback coming up to fit a run, it doesn’t really matter. And I think that’s the sign of a good defense when you have everybody running to the ball every play.”
The run began last season after Luke Kuechly’s move from outside to middle linebacker in Week 5 helped vault the Panthers into the top 10 of the league’s defenses. It’s continued this year, despite injuries in the secondary and the trade of veteran linebacker Jon Beason to the Giants.
Entering Sunday’s home game against the St. Louis Rams, the Panthers are third in total defense (299.2 yards allowed per game), second in scoring defense (13.6 points) and fourth against the run (88.8 yards).
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it’s a natural progression under defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who’s had 2 1/2 years to familiarize players and coaches with his 4-3 scheme and a philosophy Rivera referred to as “situationally aggressive.”
McDermott, 39, spent nearly a dozen years in Philadelphia with Jim Johnson, eventually succeeding the Eagles’ blitz-happy coordinator after Johnson died.
Rivera, a former defensive coordinator who also worked with Johnson in Philadelphia, talked with McDermott about developing his own personality, different from that of the “shoot-from-the-hip” Johnson.
“I think what he’s learned is you’ve got to put the player in the best position. You can’t just rely on trying to send six, seven, eight guys at a time,” Rivera said. “I think he’s learning at times, certain situations and circumstances call to be aggressive.
“If you’ve got a big lead, you don’t want to be overly aggressive. You don’t want to give up a play right away. Try to keep everything in front of you. Now that you’ve done that, you want to be more aggressive at the right time. He’s done that, as well.”
The critical stats
McDermott prefers to use his four-man front to generate pressure in most situations, keeping his secondary in soft zone coverage to defend against long, momentum-changing completions.
“Big plays break down a defense. And any time you can keep things underneath – I’m not a big guy on completion percentage because if he’s dinking and dunking, we’ll take that,” McDermott said. “We’ll take second-and-7, second-and-6 or more. That’s where the fundamentals come into play. That’s why we work so much on tackling every week.”
While the top-3 defensive ranking is nice, McDermott pays more attention to what he called “critical statistics” that help teams win games – rushing defense, red-zone defense, third-down defense and takeaways.
The Panthers have fared well in most of those categories. They’re fourth in rushing defense and red-zone defense, giving up four touchdowns in their opponents’ 11 trips inside the 20.
Carolina ranks 14th with 11 takeaways, but is 20th in third-down defense, allowing teams to convert 38.5 percent of their third-down chances.
Blackburn, whose emergence in his first year with Carolina helped lead to the trade of Beason, said the Panthers are giving up too much yardage on third down and in two-minute situations.
“We’re playing at a high rate and we know that we have left plays on the field,” Blackburn said. “We just have to continue to get better in those areas, not leave those plays out there.”
Other than a communication breakdown in the secondary in a last-minute loss at Buffalo and a few other lapses, the defense has been solid.
Transition takes time
Rivera said players are more comfortable in McDermott’s system, which has its challenges.
“He’s really matured a lot and in the 2 1/2 seasons we’ve been here, and the defensive guys are starting to understand the complexities of what we try to do,” Rivera said. “Sean came in with a lot of ideas, but Jim’s system was very complex. A lot of people don’t realize it.”
Defensive end Greg Hardy said players are buying into what McDermott is calling.
“We believe in everything that he shoots out there, every defense that he calls we believe in it wholeheartedly,” Hardy said. “He’s teaching us how to adjust and adapt and become a playoff-caliber defense.”
McDermott likes that different players have been stepping up. When Charles Godfrey went down with a season-ending Achilles tear in Week 2 at Buffalo, free agent pickup Mike Mitchell slid from strong to free safety. Mitchell has three interceptions the past two games.
When rookie strong safety Robert Lester missed the Vikings’ game with a hamstring injury, Quintin Mikell – less than 100 percent himself with an ankle injury – started and collected five tackles.
Kuechly, the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, and weakside linebacker Thomas Davis are the team’s leading tacklers. The Panthers also have received a boost from rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who has logged more snaps because of Dwan Edwards’ hamstring injury.
“I think players understand where they fit in the scheme and how they fit into the puzzle. So we’re seeing different guys show up,” McDermott said. “I think what you’re seeing is an evolution of a defense that’s working on getting better every week, but still has a long way to go.”
Hardy believes the Panthers can finish as the No. 1 defense. Houston (252.8 yards a game) holds that spot, and Seattle (290.2) is second.
“If we just keep doing what we’re doing ... we’re going to keep climbing. And when we get to No. 1, we’re going to keep climbing after that,” Hardy said. “And if we don’t get to No. 1, we’re going to come back and work even harder. I feel like we’re never going to stop.
“We’re hungry because coach McDermott put us in that mindset. We love that guy and we love each other. We’re going to put it on the line.”
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email firstname.lastname@example.org to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less