The Carolina Panthers defense’s knack for creating turnovers was one of the more formidable in the league, until all of the sudden it wasn’t.
Last season as the Panthers rollicked to a 15-1 record and berth in the Super Bowl, the “Thieves Ave.” secondary allowed an average of 253.4 passing yards per game and, led by Kurt Coleman’s seven, intercepted opposing quarterbacks 24 times, returning four of them for touchdowns.
Coleman knows this year’s takeaway number well.
“Well, right now we have several guys tied at one.”
The statement came with an exhaling grimace, because the entire secondary knows it has become one of the Panthers’ weaker groups through six games. Carolina has allowed 296 passing yards per game, including 300-plus three times.
In 2015, the Panthers allowed 300-plus passing yards five times. However, each of those games also featured at least two opposing turnovers, and two interceptions apiece in victories against Tampa Bay and Seattle.
All-Pro corner Josh Norman, who was responsible for four interceptions and three forced fumbles last season, is gone. His competition with Coleman led in part to the safety’s stellar year, Coleman said this week.
But Carolina’s problems go deeper than Norman’s absence, and the fixes are a little more complex.
The secondary has been in constant flux. At cornerback, there have been 19 transactions by the Panthers since April 20, the day Norman’s franchise tag was rescinded.
And, especially recently, there have been injuries. Rookie James Bradberry suffered a turf toe injury against Atlanta and has either been absent or limited in practices. Leonard Johnson is coming off Achilles surgery this spring and, while activated on Friday, will likely be playing catch-up.
Teddy Williams hurt his knee in practice on Thursday and was placed on injured reserve Friday. Robert McClain has soreness in his hamstring and was limited to package installations and walkthroughs on Friday. McClain and Daryl Worley were slated earlier this week by head coach Ron Rivera to start on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, and there aren’t many viable options remaining.
But Rivera doesn’t want to use those injuries – especially the unexpected one to Williams – as an excuse.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with injured guys or not, quite honestly,” he said Friday. “We have to ramp it up. And during practice, they’ve done quite a good job with that this week. They really have focused in on trying to get back into that position, whether it’s intercepting the ball or causing a fumble and recovering it.”
Coleman said the team has “Takeaway Thursday” each week, with players working on creating turnovers.
“It’s a mindset between us and the linebackers, especially,” he said. “We’re really gauging ourselves who can have more takeaways each day and as the season progresses. We keep a tally.”
The team did not meet its goal of three on Thursday, Bradberry said. But that doesn’t mean the focus was absent.
“We’re doing the same drills but there’s more of a sense of urgency now,” said McClain. “There’s more of a meaning. We have to do it. We put ourselves in a predicament and we’re not over it. It’s far from over. We have a long way to go for the rest of the season where we can turn things around.”
Coleman added that one of his goals for the unit is to fully complement the front seven.
“If you have good coverage and we’re not beating ourselves, we get the defensive line time to get to the quarterback,” he said. “And that’s when you get the tips, overthrows, batted balls at the line of scrimmage … and that’s what we’ve got to start creating.”
Rivera agreed, adding that the pass coverage and the pass rush go hand-in-hand – more noticeably so when either one or both are not being executed.
“If we’re covering the way we need to and we’re in the lead position and where we’re supposed to be, the quarterback may not throw that 9-route that he’s waiting to come open. Now he’s got to pull the ball down and look for that check down,” he said. “And he might be getting hit.
“That’s part of where it goes hand in hand. Yeah, the pass rush plays a big factor in not getting as many (takeaways), but so does the coverage.”