Somewhere among Panthers safety Kurt Coleman’s possessions is a Thieves Ave. sign.
And it’s collecting dust.
Thieves Ave. was the mantra of the Panthers’ secondary during the giddy days of 2015, when the defensive backs were a ball-hawking bunch that was part of an opportunistic defense that rode a takeaway wave all the way to Super Bowl 50.
But those turnovers – and the street-like sign commemorating them – have disappeared this season.
Under first-year coordinator Steve Wilks, the Panthers still rank in the top 10 in the league in yards (fourth at 280 per game) and points (tied for ninth, 20.3 ppg) allowed.
But they are languishing at or near the bottom in every turnover category.
The Panthers say they’re in position to force fumbles and come up with interceptions. But after six games, this is beginning to feel like a trend.
Carolina has only one interception all season, which came in Week 1 when linebacker Luke Kuechly picked off 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer. Their current, five-game drought without a pick is the longest in team history, according to Pro Football Reference data.
The Panthers already have endured a three-game streak without any type of takeaway, which tied another dubious team mark.
Wilks says he’s not “overly concerned” with the dearth of takeaways, but some of the defensive backs are starting to voice their frustrations.
“We practice it all the time. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s not rolling with us right now,” nickel back Captain Munnerlyn said. “But we’ve definitely got to change that. It’s the NFL. You’ve got to have takeaways; it’s a part of the game. And we’ve got to make plays on the football.”
The secondary has undergone significant personnel changes since 2015, when the Panthers picked off an NFL-best 24 passes and led the league with a plus-20 turnover margin.
The starting corners that season were Josh Norman, who had four interceptions and essentially locked down his side of the field, and Charles Tillman, whose “Peanut punch” method of dislodging the ball produced two forced fumbles and was copied by the rest of the defense.
After the Super Bowl run, Norman was cut loose from his franchise tag, Tillman retired and strong safety Roman Harper signed with the Saints. That left only Coleman, whose 11 interceptions over the ’15 and ’16 seasons were the most in the NFC.
Coleman, who’s missed the past two games with a sprained knee, has several veteran safeties alongside him in Mike Adams, Jairus Byrd and Colin Jones.
But the top three corners are second-year players James Bradberry, Kevon Seymour and Daryl Worley, who have a combined three interceptions among them.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera says the defense has missed chances when there’s been a tipped ball or batted pass. But those also have been few and far between: The Panthers’ 14 passes defensed are the fewest among teams that have played six games.
Which raises the questions: Are Panthers’ linebackers and defensive backs simply not close enough in coverage to be in position for picks?
Wilks does not believe that’s the issue.
“I’m not overly concerned about it from a standpoint of guys not executing,” he said. “I think we’re just not finishing. We’re in position.”
Former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott relied on pressure from the front four and ran mostly zone coverages in the secondary.
But with veteran edge rushers Charles Johnson and Julius Peppers playing limited snaps, Wilks has used more blitzes and man coverage, in which defensive backs often have their backs to the line of scrimmage and aren’t reading quarterbacks as much.
But Bradberry, the second-round pick in 2016, doesn’t think scheme has played a part in the drop-off in interceptions.
“You can’t really say that because we still run the same defense that they ran in 2015 and they were getting a bunch of interceptions then,” Bradberry said. “Just us as players, we’ve got to make plays.”
Bradberry, who had two interceptions as a rookie, says he needs to do a better job tracking the ball in the air.
Byrd, who was signed Oct. 3 after Coleman’s injury, has 25 interceptions in nine seasons, including a league-leading nine picks as a rookie with Buffalo.
Byrd says it sounds simplistic, but the key to creating turnovers is focusing – whether it’s in the air or cradled in a ball-carrier’s arm.
The importance of takeaways was underscored in the Panthers’ 28-23 loss last week to Philadelphia, which intercepted Cam Newton three times. Two of the interceptions gave the Eagles the ball inside the Carolina 20, and Philadelphia turned that excellent field position into 15 points.
“It’s huge,” Byrd said. “We have to start doing that because you saw what they did, they made it easier on their offense to get points. And then on our end ... if we don’t get those you’re making (the Panthers’ offense go) the long way, the hard way.”
It also means the defense will be on the field longer, which is not ideal for a group that features several 30-and-over contributors.
Seymour mentioned the cliché about how turnovers come in bunches.
Byrd was asked whether he thinks that will happen this season.
“Yeah,” Byrd said. “They have to.”
Otherwise, Thieves Ave. will be more like a dead-end street.