Several members of the Carolina Panthers’ defensive front seven boasted this summer they would be the NFL’s best defense.
They’d set the all-time sack record, they said. And they’d be even better than 2013, when they finished second in the league overall.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, Carolina’s front seven looked like one of the NFL’s worst. The defensive line and linebackers did not work together, especially against the run.
Pittsburgh gashed Carolina for 264 rushing yards, including six carries of more than 10 yards. Two running backs totaled more than 100 rushing yards each, something Carolina had not allowed in 13 years.
“It was very much uncharacteristic for us as a whole,” coach Ron Rivera said. “The biggest thing, a couple of times we got knocked out of our creases and allowed the double teams to work. When that happens, you’ve got to do one of two things -- hold your point a little bit better or stay in your crease as a D-lineman.
“And as a linebacker when you see that, you’ve got to get downhill now. We didn’t do that very well.”
Essentially, the defensive linemen did not keep their gap integrity along the front – they were pushed aside by the Steelers offensive line. Meanwhile, the linebackers either didn’t or couldn’t rush toward the ball quickly enough.
On three long rushes in particular, Carolina’s defense failed in similar fashion.
Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, considered one of the best in the league, met linebacker Thomas Davis frequently at the linebackers’ level of Carolina’s defense. After blocking a defensive tackle, Pouncey then would hit that second level and block Davis to open up his running backs.
LeGarrette Blount was the beneficiary of this hole during the second quarter. Backed up at its own 4, Pittsburgh got 15 yards out of Blount when he rushed off right guard and behind Pouncey.
But the first-half rushes didn’t hurt the Panthers. It was the 198 gashing yards during the second half that did.
Le’Veon Bell, who finished with 147 rushing yards, hit the Panthers for an 81-yard gain late in the third quarter. The shifty back took a handoff from the 8, hid behind his blockers and found a hole up the middle.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly lost Bell behind the blockers, and Davis took too many steps inside, which allowed Pouncey to hit the second level and get just enough of a block on Davis to free Bell for the big gain.
“I think the running back, Bell, did a nice job with his stutters and his movement that it froze us just enough to give them an opportunity to get to the second level,” Rivera said. “If (the defensive line is) able to hold them a little bit longer, give Luke a chance to fall back and give TD a chance to fall back, we make that play for a 4-yard gain. Unfortunately we didn’t do that.”
The final big rush came during the fourth quarter by Blount. Near midfield, he stutter-stepped in the backfield long enough for his linemen to handle the defensive line and again get hands on Davis and Kuechly. Blount rushed down the sideline for a 50-yard gain, reaching inside the Panthers’ 10-yard line.
“I think guys are just trying to do a little too much,” defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said. “I think we need to do a better job of just handling our job, take care of our responsibility first before we try to make a play. I think that’s something that I saw a lot of, guys just trying to do too much.”
Carolina had allowed just three rushes of 10 or more yards through its first two games, and Pittsburgh doubled that total Sunday night. This weekend, the Panthers will face a Ravens team that has had success on the ground.
Despite cutting Ray Rice in the wake of his domestic violence case, the Ravens had used Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro to have 12 rushes of 10 or more yards through three games.
Those runs wear on the front seven, and it puts even more pressure on the secondary to make plays on more than just the passing game.
“Sometimes we learn more from losses than we do from wins, and I’m hoping that’s the case in this situation,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “It’s where we go from here that matters the most.”