In previous seasons the Carolina Panthers’ defensive backs have celebrated their relatively low profile.
While TV announcers and reporters gushed over middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and the rest of the Panthers’ front seven, Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden dubbed the secondary the “Legion of Whom.”
Rather than pout about their lack of publicity, the group embraced the us-against-the-world mentality. Former cornerback Captain Munnerlyn called the group the “No-Name Secondary.”
But after signing several proven veterans the past two offseasons and drafting a pair of defensive backs who started as rookies in 2014, the secondary is starting to get more name recognition.
And it turns out not everyone liked the “No-Name” moniker to begin with.
“I never did. I’m not a no-name. I know who I am. I’m Josh Norman,” Norman, in his fourth year, said recently. “I know what I’ve done. I know where I’ve come from. So that’s you guys, I guess, putting it out there, not myself.
“I think us as a secondary, I think we’re fresher. Everybody wants to see each other do good. Everybody wants to see each other be successful.”
The secondary has played a big part in the overall success of the defense. Under defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, the Panthers are one of three teams that have finished in the top-10 in total defense each of the past three seasons.
During that span, Carolina never ranked lower than 13th in pass defense, ranking sixth against the pass in 2013.
But while the Panthers spent big (see ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy) and used first-round draft picks (on Kuechly, Star Lotulelei and Shaq Thompson) to improve the front seven, the perception has been that general manager Dave Gettleman pieced together the back end of the defense with largely unheralded players.
That has changed with the emergence of Norman and the arrivals of safety Roman Harper and cornerback Charles Tillman the past two offseasons.
Harper and Tillman have combined for four Pro Bowl berths and two Super Bowl appearances: Harper won a title with New Orleans in 2009, and Tillman’s Bears team played for one three years earlier.
Eric Davis (in 1996) is the only Panthers’ defensive back make it to the Pro Bowl in the franchise’s 20 seasons.
Harper isn’t talking about trips to Hawaii; he just wants the secondary to be viewed in the same favorable light as the rest of the defense.
“So often this team is caught up in the front seven, front seven, front seven. And I don’t see why this back four or five can’t be really good,” Harper said during the first week of training camp. “Instead of winning in spite of, win because of the things that we’re doing in the back half.”
Harper wasn’t trying to take anything from the Panthers’ front seven, which he said is more like a “front 10 or 11” because of the depth along the line and at linebacker.
“All I’m trying to say is we’re trying to make this defense better. We’re trying to complete it and bring it all together,” he said. “Not only just winning in spite of, ‘The DBs are no names. We don’t know these guys but they’re winning. They’re competing but it’s all because of the D-line.’
“And that’s fine because as long as we’re winning everybody’s happy. But we also want to be some of that cause and effect.”
Tillman pointed out the defensive line can’t be successful without secondary support, and vice versa.
“A secondary and a front four are a marriage. Husband and wife, we go hand in hand,” Tillman said. “If my front four’s terrible, that means I have to cover longer, the quarterback has more time to sit in that pocket. On the back end, if our DBs are terrible it’s not getting our D-line enough time to get to the quarterback.”
Trying to get better
In addition to Harper and Tillman, the other new acquisition in the secondary is former Eagles and Chiefs safety Kurt Coleman. (Corner Chris Houston was in camp briefly before retiring last weekend.)
Coleman, who played for McDermott in Philadelphia, has been physical in run support, so much so at times that coaches have reminded him about not tackling the Panthers’ backs.
“If I’m told to let up, I’ll let up. But for certain inside run drills, hey, we’ve all got to get better,” said Coleman, the first-team strong safety the first week of camp. “And I’ve got to thud you up and sometimes I take you to the ground. It’s not to be malicious. It’s just me trying to get better.”
The defensive backfield features a mix of young and old.
Second-year players Bené Benwikere and Tre Boston brought much-needed speed and enthusiasm when they became starters the final month of last season. In this camp Benwikere, the nickel corner, has been sidelined with a hamstring injury, and Boston has been working behind Harper at free safety.
Meanwhile, the defensive back who’s close to developing into an elite player is Norman, who would tell you he’s already there. After holding his own against some of the NFL’s best receivers in 2014, Norman recently ranked himself among the top five cover corners in the league.
Norman, entering the final year of his contract, believes the entire secondary is about to break out.
“Once you have that group of guys all bringing in that unit of success, we can do some crazy, wonderful things,” he said. “This is the year I feel we can get over that hump and that edge and do that.”
If so, they’ll need a new nickname – and something else to rally around.
“We’ve got to figure out something for them to grow on and thrive off of,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We’ll figure it out.”