Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ defense looks good under Steve Wilks, but still a work in progress

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, left, promoted Steve Wilks, right, to defensive coordinator two days after Sean McDermott was hired as Buffalo’s head coach.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, left, promoted Steve Wilks, right, to defensive coordinator two days after Sean McDermott was hired as Buffalo’s head coach. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Panthers had a five-hour flight into the wee hours following their Week 1 win at San Francisco.

Steve Wilks didn’t sleep a wink.

The first-year defensive coordinator spent a good chunk of the trip watching video of the Panthers’ 23-3 victory on his laptop. Then he watched it again Monday in Charlotte.

What Wilks saw were players flying around to the ball, excellent penetration from his front four, “tremendous” play from the linebackers and a group that has the makings to be one of the top defenses in the league.

During a businesslike new conference Monday during which he never cracked a smile, Wilks was complimentary of his defense but pumped the brakes a bit on crowning it.

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Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks kept Sean McDermott’s 4-3 scheme in place, but he promised his own wrinkles. In Sunday’s game at San Francisco, the Panthers’ defense had four sacks and eight quarterback hits on 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

“This defense is under construction. We’re still working to try to get to where we need to be,” Wilks said. “But I’m very pleased with the guys who are on our team. I wouldn’t say right now we’re there. We had a great game. But as we all know this is a week-to-week kind of business.”

This week brings a familiar face to town. Buffalo first-year coach Sean McDermott was the Panthers’ defensive coordinator the past six seasons, working alongside Wilks for five of them.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera sent McDermott a congratulatory text after the Bills beat the Jets on Sunday in McDermott’s regular-season debut.

“I’m very happy for him. This is going to be an emotional week for a lot of people,” Rivera said. “It’ll be a nice little homecoming.”

In addition to McDermott, former Carolina assistant general manager Brandon Beane is the Bills’ GM and Buffalo’s roster includes several ex-Panthers, including fullback Mike Tolbert and quarterback Joe Webb.

Wilks is familiar with all of them.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera talks about Carolina's defense after the win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017.

Sean McDermott
Buffalo coach Sean McDermott and his Bills will visit the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. McDermott was previously the Panthers’ defensive coordinator. Gail Burton AP

Two days after McDermott was hired in Buffalo, Rivera promoted Wilks, the Charlotte native who had been the Panthers’ secondary coach and assistant head coach. Wilks interviewed for the Rams’ head coaching job and Washington’s defensive coordinator opening before his promotion.

Wilks, 48, kept McDermott’s 4-3 scheme in place, but promised his own wrinkles. Against the 49ers the Panthers generated pressure on quarterback Brian Hoyer mostly out of their four-man front, but with some timely blitzes mixed in.

The Panthers had four sacks and eight quarterback hits on Hoyer, including one by 34-year-old linebacker Thomas Davis and two by Shaq Thompson, Davis’ eventual replacement.

Davis finished with a game-high seven solo tackles, including two on running back Carlos Hyde on successive third- and fourth-down plays inside the Panthers’ 10.

“You look at Thomas and you talk about 34, and he’s flying around like he’s 20something,” Wilks said. “Those (linebackers) did an outstanding job.”

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Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis had a game-high seven solo tackles against San Francisco on Sunday. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Davis credited his teammates up front for containing Hyde and giving him a chance to run him down.

“Our coaches always preach running to the ball, the guy’s never done until you hear the whistle blown,” Davis said. “Knowing how important that is I always try to make sure that I’m running to the football.”

The Panthers held the 49ers to one field goal -- the lowest Week 1 point total allowed in team history -- and stuffed them on three of four fourth-down plays.

Wilks said the disruption by defensive tackles Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short and Kyle Love was key in the short-yardage situations.

Throw in a strip-sack by defensive end Wes Horton and a nifty interception by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and it added up to a good start by a defense that finished among the league’s top 10 in four of McDermott’s six seasons.

McDermott’s successor stressed that it was only that -- a promising start.

“I’m not going to sit here and jump the gun and say this is gonna be the best defense in the National Football League,” Wilks said. “But I’ll tell you what, we have a chance to do that if we continue the process each and every day in the right order.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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