When former Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber watched the Carolina Panthers throttle the Buccaneers 20-14 in Week 1 last season, he predicted big things for Carolina’s defense during the Fox broadcast.
But the next time Barber, a Fox color analyst, called a Panthers game, defensive end Greg Hardy was on the commissioner’s exempt list, the front four couldn’t generate a pass rush and the defense had lost its swagger.
Without a proven replacement for Hardy, who signed with Dallas during the offseason, Barber isn’t sure the Panthers will get it back.
“I remember Week 1 we’re speculating that this is going to be one of the best defenses in the league, (one of the) top three or four defenses,” Barber said recently. “And by the time we saw them again in Week 5 or 6, they just couldn’t get to the quarterback. Is Kony Ealy the guy? I don’t know. He was all right in college. I didn’t think he was a great pass rusher.”
The Panthers have one of the NFL’s premiere defensive players in Luke Kuechly, boast one of the best linebacker groups in the league and appear to have improved their secondary with a couple of veteran additions.
But with an aging Charles Johnson and question marks at the other defensive end position, experts wonder whether the Panthers have enough firepower in the pass rush to remain one of the league’s elite defenses.
“I do worry about if they’ll be able to generate enough pressure on the quarterback,” said Barber, who played 16 seasons with the Bucs from 1997-2012. “If they can generate the type of pressure that defense requires, then they’ll be the defense that everybody thinks they are because those two linebackers are great.”
Carolina fortified its strongest position through the draft by using its first-round pick on outside linebacker Shaq Thompson, who is expected to start alongside Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
General manager Dave Gettleman added two veterans in the secondary in cornerback Charles Tillman and strong safety Kurt Coleman, who were in the starting lineup from the first practice in Spartanburg.
But as Barber indicated, the pass rush – the trademark of Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s defense during the Panthers’ 12-win season in 2013 – in two years has gone from being a strong suit to an area of concern.
‘You leave yourself hanging’
Mike Rucker was the Panthers’ starting right defensive end for seven years, making the Pro Bowl during the Super Bowl season of 2003.
Rucker had only two seasons with double-digit sacks. But he was respected enough as a pass-rusher that teams couldn’t focus all their energies on blocking the Panthers’ other defensive end – perennial Pro Bowler Julius Peppers.
The Panthers had that type of 1-2, pass-rush punch with Johnson and Hardy. During Hardy’s last two full seasons in Carolina, 2012 and 2013, he and Johnson were the only NFL tandem to finish with 10 or more sacks apiece in each season.
With the Panthers employing a three-man rotation at Hardy’s former spot last season, Johnson finished with 8.5 sacks, his lowest total since becoming a full-time starter in 2010.
“If that guy on that right side doesn’t step up or continue to apply that pressure, a team can now double-team, slide protection toward (Johnson),” said Rucker, the TV analyst for the Panthers’ exhibition games.
“That starts to affect the pass rush, the pressure, and if you’re not getting it, now you’ve got to be a little more aggressive, now you’ve got to blitz a little bit more.
“And now you start to leave yourself hanging.”
Despite working under noted blitz advocate Jim Johnson in Philadelphia, McDermott believes in getting a pass rush from his front four rather than relying too heavily on the blitz.
Carolina ranked among the bottom third of the league the past two seasons in its blitz frequency. The Panthers blitzed on 23.6 percent of opponents’ pass plays last year, according to Pro Football Focus.
But McDermott knew when to pick his spots: Carolina was fifth in blitz effectiveness, according to the PFF study.
When they drafted Thompson, Panthers coach Ron Rivera mentioned Thompson’s ability to help in the pressure packages.
But in the Panthers’ 4-3 scheme, McDermott says, “You’ve got to start with a foundation of being able to affect the quarterback with the front four.”
Rivera said throughout the offseason he hoped someone would claim the right defensive end spot so the Panthers wouldn’t have to use a committee approach again.
Rivera said Ealy, last year’s second-round pick, took “the bull by the horns,” and he is expected to start Week 1 at Jacksonville.
Frank Alexander, one of the candidates for the job, sustained a season-ending Achilles injury in the second exhibition against Miami.
That left the trio of Wes Horton, Mario Addison and Ealy, who combined for 13.5 sacks in 2014. Addison, a situational speed-rusher, had 6.5 sacks, and Ealy added four, including one in each of the last three regular-season games.
No need for another Hardy
Free safety Roman Harper doesn’t believe a good defense necessarily needs a player who gets 15 sacks, which was Hardy’s franchise record-tying total in 2013.
“I’ve never played with a guy that’s gotten 15 or 16 sacks. That would be brand new to me,” Harper said. “It’s always about team first anyway. We’ve got an attack-style defense. We’re going to be successful either way, whatever we do.”
McDermott believes the Panthers have two pass-rushers to build around – Johnson and third-year defensive tackle Kawann Short, who had a career-high 3.5 sacks last season.
Rucker says keeping the 29-year-old Johnson healthy – he missed nearly the entire preseason with a calf injury — will be critical. But the spot opposite Johnson is even more so, in Rucker’s opinion.
“You’ve got solid linebackers, you’ve got a good secondary,” Rucker said. “The key is going to be that right defensive end.”
Still seeking an identity
Tillman, the longtime Bears cornerback, was in Chicago when Rivera was the Bears’ defensive coordinator. Tillman has always kept an eye on Rivera’s teams, and liked what he saw of the Panthers.
“One of the reasons I came here was because of this defense,” said Tillman, who signed a one-year, $1.75 million deal with Carolina in April.
Both Tillman and Harper have played in Super Bowls, gone to Pro Bowls and have a good idea of what a top-tier defense looks like. They also know the Panthers’ standing as a top-10 defense the past three seasons doesn’t count for anything this year.
“You can’t go off of last year’s success. Every year you have to create a new identity. I don’t think we’ve created our identity yet,” Tillman said. “We’re still forging our identity on this defense. Thus far, I like what I see.”
Harper likes what he’s seen of the Panthers’ secondary, which last season saw two of its starters – corner Antoine Cason and safety Thomas DeCoud – benched and/or released for the final four regular-season games.
Bené Benwikere and Tre Boston, who as rookies replaced Cason and DeCoud, have been coming off the bench most of the preseason this year. Harper says that speaks to the increased competition in the defensive backfield.
And while the Panthers have been predominantly a zone coverage team under McDermott, Harper believes their man coverage is vastly improved.
“It’s light years from where we were at this point last year. I think coach understands that, he trusts us a little more in man-to-man,” Harper said. “We’re doing some different things.”
Best playing straight up
Those things figure to include more blitzing when the regular season starts, although McDermott kept the pressure packages mostly under wraps through the preseason.
But Barber is among those who believe the Panthers’ defense is at its best when it plays straight up: single-gap responsibilities up front, Kuechly and Davis making plays in space and cornerback Josh Norman and Co. taking care of the back end.
“In my experience, those types of defenses where you just have guys who know their job and they just fly around, you see them make a whole load of plays,” Barber said.
There remains the question of who besides Johnson is going to make the game-changing plays that were Hardy’s forte. Not just the sacks, but the strip-sacks that result in huge swings in momentum and field position.
Rucker, who knows a thing or two about the position, made a case for Ealy.
“He needs to take that step. He needs to understand the responsibility of being that total package and having teammates counting on him, and him ready to spring out of the box and be consistent,” Rucker said. “I think he’s shown flashes. If he’s consistent, he can hold that right side down.”
Best defenses in Panthers history
The 2013 Panthers finished second behind Super Bowl-champion Seattle in total defense and scoring defense. The ’13 team also ranked alongside the 1996 and 2005 squads as the franchise’s best defenses. A look at some of Carolina’s best defensive teams statistically:
Fewest points allowed
218: 1996 (2nd in NFL)
241: 2013 (2nd in NFL)
259: 2005 (5th in NFL)
Fewest touchdowns allowed
21: 2013 (1st in NFL)
24: 1996 (tied for 2nd)
27: 2005 (tied for 3rd)
Fewest net yards allowed
60: 2013, 1996
38: 2004, 2000, 1996
Fewest first downs allowed
Fewest first downs allowed, rushing