It’s hardly a secret that Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks really, really likes to blitz.
In fact, Wilks’ aggressive playcalling is becoming common even late in tight games, when sending a blitz offers as high a risk as it does a reward.
“He believes that whoever is dialed up and is running that pressure, that they’re going to get home,” said defensive end Wes Horton. “He’s not scared, and he just dials it up.”
Carolina has run head coach Ron Rivera’s defensive scheme for seven years, but the Panthers’ 2017 defense has already taken on the personality of its first-year coordinator, Rivera said on Monday.
“Steve is very aggressive, which you know,” he said. “He’s looking for opportunities and ways to do things. And I think that’s a big part of it, is that it’s taking on his personality and who he is.”
Wilks is calling blitzes on more than 40 percent of passing plays, according to Pro Football Focus, compared with 25.3 percent for the Panthers in 2016, the final season with Carolina for former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott before he was hired as Buffalo’s head coach.
The Panthers (9-4) blitz the second-most often of any NFL team, behind the Cleveland Browns (0-13).
“I think that’s just my personality as a whole, to be honest,” Wilks said Monday. “Being a (former) defensive backs coach, most people think you’re going to be just the opposite, (that I’ll) really want to play a lot of zone.
“But my thing is really trying to affect the game in a positive way for the defense. And when you look at most of these quarterbacks, if you sit back and give these guys time to really sit back and analyze the defense, they’re going to find an open pocket.”
The blitz can pay off in sacks and negative yardage, but it also forces more one-on-one matchups on receivers. If the blitz doesn’t pressure the quarterback, the opportunity for a potentially game-changing play increases.
Wilks knows the risk, but refuses to get into the nail-biting business.
“I’ve been around here for awhile, to the point of I’ve seen it throughout the years, to where you just get into that mode of sitting back a little bit,” he said. “A lot of teams do it and all the sudden, (the offense) crosses the 50. And you bite your nails.”
Wilks would much rather bring the heat early on to force a long third down.
“It starts with creating negative plays on first and second down so we can get these guys on third and long, 8, seven-plus so now we can mix up what we’re doing as far as front and coverage, and most importantly, bringing pressure.”
Convincing a head coach – especially a defensive-minded one – to increase the blitz percentage by that much year over year might be a tough sell because of the risk involved, but Wilks and Rivera’s nine-year foundation together, with both Carolina and San Diego, helped make Wilks’ case.
“I’m fine with it. I’ve worked with Steve a lot,” Rivera said. “There are some things that I really feel comfortable about with what Steve wants to do, how he wants to do it and why he wants to do it.
“His reasoning is outstanding, not that Sean (McDermott)’s wasn’t, it’s just that Steve presents it to me the way he sees it and the way he wants to do it. Sean was the same.”
Wilks’ name is being floated for potential head coaching jobs this offseason, including the New York Giants’ vacancy – although Monday he declined to comment on that report.
But it would be a huge blow to the Panthers to lose him.
Wilks’ aggressive style is proving successful for Carolina, which is tied for third in the NFL in sacks with 40 and last week had six against a Vikings front that had only allowed 14 all season.
“I just think, most importantly and I tell the guys all the time, it’s not the call, it’s the men,” said Wilks. “I feel very confident in the players we have out there that they’re going to execute.”