Carolina Panthers

How Eric Washington, defensive line set tone for Panthers being a top defense again

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) is tackled by Panthers defensive ends Wes Horton (96) and Mario Addison (97) during the second half on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) is tackled by Panthers defensive ends Wes Horton (96) and Mario Addison (97) during the second half on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. AP

As the Carolina Panthers’ defensive line coach for eight seasons, Eric Washington, now the team’s defensive coordinator, found it strange not to warm up his guys the way he’s used to before Sunday’s 16-8 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

“It was something of an adjustment, I’ll acknowledge that,” he said. “It was something that I enjoyed, it was a bond that I had with that position group that I’ve been working with for a long time, and that I still love. But when the role changes, you have to adjust.”

By the end of the game, when the defensive linemen were responsible for putting away a victory, it must have felt just like old times.

Dallas got the ball back with 1:51 to play and the Panthers leading by eight.

Carolina knew quarterback Dak Prescott would be forced into passing situations on each down, because of the field position and time remaining. And the defensive line knew, after many years with Washington, that that series would be when the defensive coordinator “cut them loose.”

Especially on an third and 7, with the Cowboys backed up on their 23.

That’s when Washington called “green.”

“When we get to third down, and we call ‘green whatever’’” Washington said, “there’s a lot of ownership and a lot of autonomy given to the front to organize the rush and to execute what they want to do...We make sure there’s a menu, but they are the ones who have to call it and execute it.”

Defensive tackle Kawann Short occupied a double team (which turned into a triple-team) and Vernon Butler pressured Prescott from the interior. Addison saw Prescott start to move and chased him down, with his man a touch late courtesy of Short’s efforts. Addison strip-sacked Prescott, and the Panthers recovered.

On Monday, none of the defensive linemen were surprised by the explosive end to the game — or that Washington gave them the autonomy to control the call.

“Honestly, we’re built for it,” said defensive tackle Kyle Love. “It’s like when you’re at the end of the game, like LeBron James or somebody and he wants the ball in his hands, Kobe (Bryant) wants the ball in his hands, (Michael) Jordan wants the ball in his hands. It’s like, that’s what we’re built for on this defense. ... If it comes to that situation, let us go. And we are going to handle business, as we did.”

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The Panthers pass-rush had six sacks on Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, while the run defense held running back Ezekiel Elliott to just 69 yards and a touchdown. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) Mike McCarn AP

Washington debuts well

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said Washington called an excellent game on Sunday, mixing pressures on first and second downs. That and stopping the run forced longer third downs, which continued to help set up an effective Carolina pass-rush. The Cowboys were 0 for 5 on third down in the first half, and did not make it past midfield until the third quarter.

Small, but important details defined the debut of a defense that appears to have an athletic, complementary front seven and a back half that tackles well.

For example, the Panthers held dynamic running back Ezekiel Elliott to 69 yards, his lowest total as an active player since Week 2 of the 2017 season.

Carolina did it in part by eliminating cutback lanes. Interior men Short and Dontari Poe were able to create “vertical pressure” by penetrating against Dallas’ offensive front, limiting the initial space in which a running back can operate.

“When you can get vertical as a defensive tackle, you start to limit the amount of cutback space the runner has,” Rivera said. “That’s important when you’re playing these zone-scheme teams. They try to stretch you, they create creases. Runners with great vision will know when to cut back, they’ll know when to stick their foot in the ground and get downhill, they’ll know when to take it outside.”

Everyone is a run-defender

When Elliott pushed the ball outside, or when he was targeted by Prescott on screen passes, Carolina’s linebackers and defensive backs swarmed to the ball to wrap him up as linemen filled lanes behind him.

“Everybody has to be in position, and you really have to read your keys because you can get play-action off of those things,” Washington said. “Once the key defines itself, you need to be in position to tackle the runner. Everybody is a run-defender, whether you’re at the point of attack or you’re a cutback player.”

Luke Kuechly finished with a game-high 13 tackles, and veteran safety Mike Adams had a big stop in the open field. Rookie cornerback Donte Jackson’s best play, according to Washington, was not in coverage but on a backside pursuit tackle of Elliott.

“There’s a buy-in,” Washington said. “A lot of times, your defense is defined by a couple of things: The willingness of the corners to tackle, and also the ability of your interior guys to chase the football, especially when it goes out to the perimeter.”

A foundation for the year?

Carolina, which finished No. 3 in the NFL against the run last year, will face several prolific backs in the next few weeks.

A road test at Atlanta this Sunday against dynamic, shifty runners Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is followed by a Week 3 matchup with Joe Mixon and the Bengals.

After the Week 4 bye, the Panthers host the New York Giants’ offense, which features this spring’s No. 2 overall draft pick, Saquon Barkley.

“Most definitely, it definitely does set a solid foundation,” Love said. “Especially with one of our leaders not being here, Thomas Davis, we’re still able to go out there and produce. Stop the run. That’s what our defense is built off of, stopping the run and making offenses one-dimensional.

“That helps us rush, too. Elliott’s a good runner. But not too many running backs have success against us anyway, so I wasn’t surprised.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue