When Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott rolled the tape of Sunday’s 38-17 loss to Green Bay on Monday, the images of the defense looked nothing like last season’s.
It wasn’t just the missed tackles and the coverage breakdowns against the Packers that stood out. It was the lack of aggression and energy that veteran linebacker and defensive captain Thomas Davis noticed when he watched the video.
“We’re not executing, we’re not making plays and we’re not competing hard enough,” Davis said. “From the film we just watched, we’ve got a lot of guys that on a consistent basis are not going out and competing hard enough, and it’s showing up.”
McDermott said his defense had a “swarming” mentality last season when they finished second in the NFL in total defense and scoring defense behind Seattle, the defending Super Bowl champion that comes to Charlotte this weekend.
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Davis noticed it, too.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy counted 13 missed tackles by the Panthers in the first half, when Green Bay scored on its first three possessions, jumped out to a 28-0 lead and never looked back.
Asked if McCarthy’s numbers jibed with Carolina’s statistics on missed tackles, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he hadn’t counted them yet.
But Davis said he didn’t need to see a stat sheet to know the Panthers were not gang-tackling. The video evidence was enough.
“If you look at last year’s defense, even when guys made mistakes or I missed a tackle or somebody else missed a tackle, we had guys that were flying to the ball and running around and making plays,” Davis said. “It covered up for some of the stuff that was going on. But right now, we just…we have a lack of that going on right now.”
The problems against the Packers were just the most recent for the Panthers’ defense, which continues to rank near the bottom in most of the major statistical categories.
After giving up 37 points or more in four of the past five games, the Panthers now have allowed 195 points this season. In 2013, they gave up 241 all season.
Only two teams have allowed more than the Panthers, and both play in their division: Tampa Bay (204) and Atlanta (199).
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers shredded the secondary by completing 19-of-22 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns. McDermott said the defensive backs have to do a better job contesting throws, pointing out the Panthers did not have a pass breakup against the Packers.
When the opposing quarterback has only three incompletions, you’re not going to have many pass breakups.
Rivera has said he wouldn’t make personnel changes. But he said a couple of reserve defensive backs – cornerback James Dockery and rookie safety Tre Boston – played well enough in limited action against the Packers to perhaps merit a longer look.
Corner Josh Norman, who has missed two games after sustaining a concussion and shoulder injury in a Week 5 win against Chicago, said he was told he would work with the first-team defense this week.
Asked about what has looked like a slow secondary at points this season, Rivera said coaches can help the defensive backfield by figuring out ways to get more pressure on the quarterback.
That task became much harder when Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list in September in the wake of his domestic violence charges.
Mario Addison has shown flashes as an edge rusher, and Charles Johnson had his best game of the season against the Packers. But the front four has failed to generate a consistent pass rush in Hardy’s absence.
With 15 sacks through seven games, the Panthers are on pace to finish with 34. The Panthers led the league and set a team record last season with 60 sacks, including 15 by Hardy.
Rivera said he was most disappointed with the undisciplined play by the defense Sunday. All three of the Packers’ first three touchdown drives were aided by defensive penalties, including offsides penalties on consecutive plays by defensive end Wes Horton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to turn a third-and-12 into a more manageable third-and-2.
After Rodgers scrambled for 3 yards to pick up the first down, he hit Jordy Nelson on a 59-yard touchdown pass on the following play to start the scoring.
Rivera talked about correcting the undisciplined play, but offered no specifics.
“You can look at possibly disciplining somebody. But what or how?” he said. “The other thing, too, is it wasn’t the same guy. One of them was somebody (Kuechly) you never would have thought it would happen (to), but it did.”
But it was the lack of enthusiasm that irked Davis and other defensive starters, including strong safety Roman Harper.
Harper, the former Pro Bowler with New Orleans, said he signed with the Panthers during the offseason to be part of a defense whose style of play matched his. Even after what he called his worst game as a Panther against Green Bay, Harper believes he and the rest of the defense can turn things around.
“We’ve got to tackle better. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to come here, because I loved how this defense played – the intensity, the speed, the tackling, the ferocity,” Harper said.
“I haven’t lost the faith. I know how good this team can be. Because when we’re good, we’re really good. When we’re bad, it seems like we’re really bad. We can’t be this whole Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing. We’ve got to go out there and be consistent.”