Carolina Panthers

Panthers defense analysis, depth chart: More versatile in 2019 ... But improved?

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That’s how Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera described what became of his team’s defense by the end of the 2018 season. In Rivera’s view, the Panthers’ look became so familiar that it was predictable to opposing offenses. They allowed nearly 24 points per game — 20th among 32 NFL teams in scoring defense — prompting Rivera to shake things up.

Those changes started during last season when Rivera chose in Week 13 to take more direct control of the defense, pulling some decision-making power from first-year coordinator Eric Washington. Rivera continues to be more hands-on with the defensive game plan this season.

Rivera told the Observer in February he regretted not intervening sooner during last year’s seven-game losing streak: “You do the same thing for eight years and you get in that comfort zone: ‘This is what we do and this is how we do it.’ ”

After being primarily a 4-3 defensive front, the Panthers are evolving toward more multiple looks with a heavy mix of 3-4. That means new personnel — particularly at the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position — and adjustment by holdovers, such as star inside linebacker Luke Kuechly.

“We’ve got to get to that point where the unsaid communications are huge,” Rivera said of the blending of scheme and personnel.

“I think they are adapting well. You can hear communications now, particularly when the first [unit] is in there ... We had a check where [linebacker Shaq Thompson] had to put a call on, and he took it off because the [offensive] motion changed it. And Luke came in and reaffirmed it.”

Defensive front/pass rush

If you can’t get to opposing quarterbacks in this pass-heavy era of NFL football, it’s next to impossible to be a good defense. Perhaps the strongest indictment of the Panthers last season was being 27th among 32 teams in sacks, and the gap from the top teams was huge: The Panthers had 35 sacks, compared with the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers with 52 each.

The Panthers knew they were shaky entering last season, so dependent on a 38-year-old Julius Peppers to create pressure. Peppers retired and the Panthers went about rebuilding. They drafted two long, athletic edge rushers in Brian Burns and Christian Miller, looking to complement holdover Mario Addison. They also got fortunate after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers waived interior lineman Gerald McCoy, later persuading the six-time Pro Bowler to sign with Carolina.

First-round pick Burns, the 16th overall selection, immediately drew attention in training camp for his quick first step and basketball player-like length. He had four sacks in his first three preseason games and looks to be on the fast track to stardom. The other side of the pass rush will be a combination of what veteran Bruce Irvin has left and what Marquis Haynes and Miller can be.

Up the middle, the starters — McCoy, Kawaan Short and Dontari Poe — look fine, but there could be a significant drop-off in the reserves. Entering his fourth season, Vernon Butler hasn’t come close to looking like a first-round pick.

Depth chart

93 Gerald McCoy95 Dontari Poe99 Kawann Short

92 Vernon Butler Jr. 77 Kyle Love

Inside linebackers/run defense

A disclaimer: Starting linebackers Kuechly and Shaq Thompson played very little in the preseason as their coaches tried to keep them healthy.

But the Panthers had problems containing runners and third-down conversions. The Patriots might have scored only 10 points, but they ran for 129 yards, converted 10-of-17 third downs and held the ball for 37 minutes.

“We’ve got to be better at stopping the run, and a lot of that is just tackling,” McCoy said after the Patriots game. “We’ve played pretty solid, but honestly solid is not going to get it. Solid will get you 8-8, and that is not the goal. We want to win the Super Bowl. We’ve got to be a lot better.”

The Bills repeatedly isolated inside linebackers Jermaine Carter Jr. and Andre Smith to great success. Granted, the Panthers’ coaches didn’t game plan for Buffalo and knew the Bills’ formations were designed to test Carter and Smith, both those plays exposed a problem.

Kuechly is so exceptional at anticipating and disrupting offenses that the Panthers are a different team in his absence. He must avoid injury, particularly with his history of concussions.

Depth chart

55 Bruce Irvin54 Shaq Thompson59 Luke Kuechly97 Mario Addison
98 Marquis Haynes57 Andre Smith56 Jermaine Carter Jr.53 Brian Burns
50 Christian Miller

43 Jordan Kunaszyk94 Efe Obada


The Panthers’ signing of free safety Tre Boston a week into training camp served two purposes: It provided a veteran with eight interceptions the past two seasons, and it added a “loudmouth,” to quote a fellow loudmouth, cornerback Donte Jackson.

Boston brings attitude to a defense that lost some of its feistiness with the departure of linebacker Thomas Davis. Strong safety Eric Reid is cerebral, and the Panthers have two talented corners in Jackson and James Bradberry. There was a big hole prior to the signing of Boston.

The remaining question is nickel cornerback, which is more than a specialty position. The Panthers play variations of a nickel defense in likely passing downs — about half of their defensive snaps. Former Buccaneer Javien Elliott made some big plays in training camp and probably has the best ball skills of the candidates. Corn Elder might be more physical, and the competition between the two looked close going into the final week of the preseason.

McCoy played with Elliott, a former walk-on at Florida State, and appreciates the resilience Elliott has shown.

“He started out with the 3s [third string] and now he’s with the 1s at nickel, and he’s earned it,” McCoy said. “He’ll never forget where he’s come from.”

Depth chart

24 James Bradberry25 Eric Reid33 Tre Boston26 Donte Jackson
23 Kevon Seymour28 Rashaan Gaulden47 Ross Cockrell38 Javien Elliott

47 Ross Cockrell

42 Colin Jones