After a historically bad stretch of pass defense, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera says it’s not a youthful secondary that is killing his team – but the lack of a pass rush from a veteran-laded defensive line.
After sifting through the wreckage of another defensive meltdown, Rivera conceded Monday he knew the Panthers “would take our lumps” after letting Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman leave and drafting three cornerbacks a week later.
But he thought the front four would help ease the adjustment period for the rookies in the secondary by generating consistent pressure on quarterbacks.
That has yet to happen.
The Panthers (1-5) are in the middle of the NFL pack with 12 sacks. Starting defensive ends Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson don’t have one full sack between them (Johnson had a half-sack in Sunday’s 41-38 loss at New Orleans).
And the absence of a pass rush has helped lead to several dubious achievements.
The Panthers became the first team since the 1970 merger to allow a pair of 450-yard passing performances in the same season. They did it in a 15-day span when Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (503 yards) and the Saints’ Drew Brees (465) were able to stand in the pocket and pick apart a secondary hurt by injuries and questionable front-office decisions.
Ealy, whose three-sack showing against Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 50 raised expectations, says the front four will keep “grinding.”
“We’ve got too good of a front to not be generating sacks and pressures. We’ve just got to do a better job each and every week,” Ealy said Monday. “We’re going to continue to keep working. That’s the only thing we can do. Try to get better and try to get this whole thing (fixed).”
Gettleman’s (other) gamble
While general manager Dave Gettleman’s biggest offseason gamble was pulling the franchise tag from Norman, he also rolled the dice by not signing or drafting an edge rusher.
Instead, the Panthers hoped for a breakthrough season from Ealy after his stellar Super Bowl and a bounce-back year from Johnson, who returned on a one-year, prove-it contract after an injury-plagued 2015.
Johnson hasn’t had the sacks, but has played well of late. He accounted for three of the six hits on Brees on Sunday.
The Panthers also returned situational speed-rusher Mario Addison and a couple of young defensive ends they thought would develop, including Ryan Delaire.
“Some guys that we’ve counted on haven’t been as productive and some guy haven’t had opportunities because of injuries,” Rivera said. “We have to find ways to manufacture it.”
Delaire is on injured reserve following knee surgery, although Rivera said he could return this season if the Panthers opt to use their lone IR exception on the speed rusher.
But mostly Carolina needs its starting linemen to be more productive, including defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. Short had 11 sacks during a Pro Bowl season in 2015, but has managed just one this year.
‘We’re going to take our lumps’
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott repeated his oft-cited refrain Monday that pass rush and coverage go hand in hand.
But in 49 dropbacks Sunday in New Orleans, Brees was sacked only once. That allowed him to expose a cornerback group that started rookies Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez after injuries to second-round pick James Bradberry and veteran Robert McClain.
“We’re going to go forward with it. They’ve made mistakes. We’re going to take our lumps,” Rivera said. “But hopefully they’ll pick things up and get things going. If we get the pass rush going I think we’re going to be OK.”
Rivera refused to be pulled into a discussion about Norman on Monday when asked if the Panthers had made a mistake letting him go.
“That’s 20/20. It’s called hindsight,” Rivera said. “I’m not going there.”
Short also wasn’t interested in revisiting the Norman situation.
“One individual don’t make this team. ... I’ve still got faith in the young guys that’s back there, with (safety) Kurt Coleman stepping up and helping those guys out,” Short said. “As far as missing Josh, we’re not jumping on the train as far as being sad that he’s gone.”
McDermott says he’s proud of the way the young corners have played while adding the learning process won’t happen overnight.
Players like Short and Ealy can speed the process by doing their parts.