Carolina Panthers safety Mike Adams is as wily a veteran as they come.
So when Adams shaded a Tennessee Titans receiver to the inside of the field on an outside route, the receiver hardly knew what was happening before the ball, thrown by quarterback Marcus Mariota, flew to the sideline where that receiver was supposed to be, and dribbled incomplete.
“Yeah, Mike!” screeched linebacker Luke Kuechly, running across the field to fist-bump Adams. “Yeah Mike!”
It was a testament to what Carolina’s core defensive player notices as he flies around the field at middle linebacker. Adams’ movement to shade in the receiver was subtle, but Kuechly saw it and wanted the safety to know he recognized what he had done.
“Well, Mike’s been in the league for 15 years,” Kuechly said, laughing, after practice. “He knows football. Just the little things. It’s fun when you get things right. ... We’re all getting on the same page, which is good.”
This defense, which has been chomping at the bit to put a set of pads on someone not wearing Carolina blue, is starting to smooth out those little details that Kuechly loves to notice, starting up front.
Defensive tackle Kawann Short worked on the inside against Tennessee’s first-team line, and defensive end Julius Peppers took the edge during pass-rush drills. Some of the drills were specifically designed to force a double team with a three-man offensive line against a two-man defensive set, and Short picked his up with ease as Peppers shook the offensive tackle for what would equate to a sack in live action.
When the two worked in tandem against a guard and starting Titans tackle Jack Conklin in another set of drills, it appeared even easier.
Tennessee’s linemen are formidable, and sure, it was one set of drills. But Short and Peppers appeared to really be in sync, both on communication and recognition of the manner in which the linemen are playing them, in preparation for either a run or pass play.
“We have to be on the same page, and we communicated and it came out good,” said Short after practice. “Man, you talking 100-plus sacks with Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson alone. Those guys set the foundation over here. We do everything they ask us to do, as far as what they expect. ... The whole time, we do expect to communicate.”
The secondary is also starting to click into its rotation behind corners James Bradberry and Daryl Worley.
While veteran corner Captain Munnerlyn starts in the nickel, he also plays outside corner behind Worley. Rookie undrafted free agent Cole Luke has rotated in often on the outside, as well as at nickel and had a nice pass breakup on Tuesday during team drills against Tennessee. As Munnerlyn got a break near the end of the day, Luke saw a couple snaps at the nickel.
Kuechly has noticed Luke, too.
“He’s a good player,” said Kuechly. “He understands football, understands what he needs to do. When you play with him, it doesn’t feel like he’s a rookie.
“(At one point) he was out there with me, and we had a little eye contact and he knew what was going on, and that’s good to see a young guy come in and understand what’s going on and get in there right away and make something happen.”
But there are questions
Carolina does still have enormous question marks at safety. After Dean Marlowe was waived with an injury settlement this week (he tore his hamstring in camp), special teams ace Collin Jones has seen more time as a depth piece. Veteran starter Kurt Coleman is in Charlotte dealing with a personal issue, so Jones ran with the ones on defense on Tuesday.
Behind him, there are high expectations on Damian Parms and Dezmen Southward, who seem to have the current edge over local product L.J. McCray.
Even if one of those players steps up as a core backup at safety, Carolina will likely sign one either before or after preseason cuts.
When the third string defense took the field, linebacker Ben Jacobs rolled out with them and very audibly over-communicated to a unit (featuring McCray and rookies Zeek Biggers and Ben Boulware) that is still figuring out where it needs to be. That, said Kuechly, is intentional.
“Yeah, Ben (Jacobs) is a guy who can play all three spots. He can probably line up and play nickel,” said Kuechly. “He understands what’s going on, and it’s good for guys to have the opportunity to be on the field with a guy like Ben who can just tell (one guy) what to do, tell (another guy) what to do, he doesn’t really need to look to figure out what he needs to do, he just knows.
“I think that helps young guys grow.”
Still, leave it up to the hotshots with experience to show Carolina’s defense how it’s done – and how to talk about it after.
Near the end of practice, linebacker Shaq Thompson picked off Mariota on a short pass and ran it back for a touchdown.
Veteran Thomas Davis, who was getting a rest on the sideline, began hooting as Thompson jogged the ball back to the line of scrimmage.