Carolina Panthers

Thomas Davis: Carolina Panthers defense can be NFL’s best

As the longest-tenured member of the Carolina Panthers, outside linebacker Thomas Davis knows the team’s history as well as anyone.

So no one has to remind Davis the Panthers have never posted back-to-back winning seasons or made the playoffs in consecutive seasons during their 20-year history.

Davis thinks it’s time to end that drought.

“That’s going to be huge when we do that, note that I said when we do that,” Davis said recently. “We understand. I’ve been on this team for going on 10 years now and it’s never happened. We’ve never been to the playoffs back-to-back. We know all of that stuff.”

Davis also knows no team has repeated as NFC South champion in the 12 years since the NFL’s realignment. Davis said New Orleans Saints tight end Ben Watson, who played with Davis at Georgia, has made that fact abundantly clear.

But the Panthers are in a position to do so after a 12-4 finish in 2013 that was fueled by the league’s second-ranked defense. Only the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks allowed fewer points or yards last season.

The Panthers allowed 15.1 points per game, their fewest since 1996, led the league with 60 sacks and set team records for fewest touchdowns allowed (21) and most defensive touchdowns (four).

Davis thinks the defense can be better.

“We saw that we left a lot of plays out there. We could have very easily been the No. 1 defense in the league if we’d minimized some of the mistakes that we had last year. That’s been our focal point,” Davis said.

Specifically, he wants to see defenders cut down on missed tackles. According to the analytics site Football Outsiders, the Panthers missed tackles on 6.2 percent of their defensive snaps in 2013, tied for the seventh-worst mark in the league.

“We tackled well, but we had some missed tackles that ultimately ended up costing us in certain situations,” Davis said. “As close as we were, if we minimize those things, we could have easily been No. 1.”

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who interviewed for Washington’s coaching vacancy last winter, isn’t interested in reliving last year’s success. During a lunchtime interview Sunday at Wofford, McDermott talked about starting “from the ground up again.”

He’s emphasizing defensive communication, running to the ball, taking the ball away and being effective in third-down and red-zone situations.

“No different than last year,” McDermott said. “We’ve just got to do it that much better.”

The big difference is the personnel in the secondary, where the Panthers are replacing three-fourths of their starters. Adding to the challenge is the practice time free-agent safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud have missed because of knee injuries.

Broken coverages cost the Panthers in critical situations in losses to Buffalo in Week 2 and during the divisional playoff game against San Francisco. It sounds simple, but McDermott wants to make sure everyone in the secondary knows what they’re doing.

“That’s the first way to burn the house down, is for people not to be on the same page in the back end,” he said.

There are fewer concerns with the front seven, where every starter and significant backup returned.

That group includes a deep defensive line and a linebacking unit headed by Luke Kuechly and Davis. While Kuechly was The Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year, Davis was a consensus pick on the all-snub team.

Two years removed from the third ACL reconstruction on his right knee, Davis set career highs with 123 tackles, four sacks and eight pass breakups. He added seven quarterback pressures, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

And while the Panthers sent a huge contingent to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl – seven players, Ron Rivera’s coaching staff and the support staff – Davis was not among them.

He hasn’t forgotten.

“I look at that as motivation. Obviously the league doesn’t know about me yet. So my goal going into this season is to earn the respect of the league,” Davis said. “I know that I have to be better than I was last year because obviously last year wasn’t good enough.”

In February, the Panthers picked up the two club option years on Davis’ contract. At 31, he is playing with no apparent limitations – or a knee brace.

“To me he’s one of the better linebackers around the league,” McDermott said. “Quite honestly, he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves outside of Charlotte. We know what type of person he is off the field, high character wise. He’s one of our biggest leaders.”

McDermott saw that leadership surface during Saturday’s practice at Wofford when Davis picked up his intensity. The rest of the defense noticed, too.

“I could just tell that at a certain point in practice he had flipped the switch. That gives me goose bumps,” McDermott said. “You know the pit bull is off the chain at that point.”

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