Defense wasn’t supposed to be a problem for the Carolina Panthers this season.
The Panthers returned their entire front seven intact after sinking $13.1 million into the franchise tag for defensive end Greg Hardy. They boasted the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Luke Kuechly. They were coming off a season in which they finished second behind Super Bowl-champion Seattle in total defense and scoring defense.
But six games into the season, the defense looks like a shell of its former self.
After giving up 513 yards Sunday in the 37-37 tie with Cincinnati, the Panthers rank 25th or lower in five major defensive categories, including total yards (392.5), rushing yards (140.2) and points (26.2) allowed per game.
Opponents have converted 50 percent of third downs against the Panthers, who rank ahead of only winless Oakland in the category. Carolina allowed opponents to convert only 35.8 percent of third-down situations in 2013.
So what happened?
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott talks about the defensive linemen and linebackers doing a better job of getting off blocks and being faithful to their gap assignments, and believes the defensive backs could improve at contesting and challenging passes.
But McDermott and Panthers coach Ron Rivera both addressed the elephant in the room Monday – the impact the loss of Hardy, who’s on the commissioner’s exempt list and has played in only one game, has had on the defense.
“It’d be asinine for me to sit up here and say that his loss has no impact on us. But at the same time it is a next-man mentality,” Rivera said. “That’s not the reason why (the defense has struggled). It comes down to base fundamentals. And it’s not the guys that have replaced him that are the only ones making mistakes. There’s a few other guys that need to play more disciplined.”
Hardy is an elite pass rusher who went to his first Pro Bowl last season after tying Kevin Greene’s single-season team record with 15 sacks. He was found guilty by a district judge in July of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend, and is awaiting a jury trial in November after appealing the initial decision.
In the only game Hardy played, the Panthers (3-2-1) gave up a season-low 264 yards and had three sacks in a 20-14 victory at Tampa Bay, which has the league’s 29th-ranked offense. In five games without Hardy, the Panthers have allowed an average of 418 yards and 28.6 points a game, with only two sacks per game.
Still, Rivera said he wasn’t going to blame the defensive issues on Hardy.
“It’d be easy to sit here and say it, but I’m not gonna. Then you start letting a lot of people off the hook, me included,” Rivera said. “The truth of the matter is these guys are professionals and they need to play, and they need to play better.”
When Hardy was placed on the exempt list Sept. 17, Rivera indicated he wanted Hardy to be around the Panthers’ facility after taking a few days off. While defensive end Frank Alexander has worked out at Bank of America Stadium while serving two separate suspensions for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, Hardy has been nowhere to be found.
Rivera said Monday he’s had contact with Hardy and he’d return to the facility at the “appropriate” time.
McDermott said he appreciates Hardy’s abilities, but the embattled player is not his chief concern.
“Greg is a phenomenal player and we all know that. We all know what Greg brings to the table. The thing I need to focus on is Greg’s not here,” McDermott said. “Greg’s on my mind because I hope he’s doing well. My primary concern is the guys in that room and getting this defense to improve – no matter if we were the No. 1 ranked defense and we were undefeated. We’ve got to improve every day.”
McDermott said he’s had to do more blitzing without Hardy,because the front four has failed to generate a consistent pass rush. The Panthers have 13 sacks through six games and are on pace to finish with 35, a year after leading the league with a team-record 60.
Defensive end Charles Johnson had the only sack on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who completed 33-of-43 passes for 323 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions.
Rivera became a little testy Monday when asked about the Panthers’ run defense against Cincinnati, saying the 89-yard gain by former North Carolina running back Gio Bernard skewed the statistics.
“It was just one play. It was one running play that went 80-some odd yards. Just one play, OK?” Rivera siad. “Other than that, our gap integrity was outstanding. That’s the unfortunate thing. A big play kind of blows the numbers out of proportion and people think, ‘Oh, wow, they got run over.’ No, we got one play.
“But those are the types of things that get you beat.”
The Panthers have given up the two longest runs from scrimmage in the NFL this season – Bernard’s touchdown run and an 81-yarder by Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell.
Bernard’s burst was the sixth play of 50 yards or more surrendered by the Panthers. Last season they gave up only two 50-plus gains.
“It’s just the big plays. We’ll play well through most of the game but it’ll be one or two big plays that’ll turn into big touchdowns,” free safety Thomas DeCoud said. “I think if we can eliminate the big play, offenses aren’t patient enough to dink and dunk you down the field. They’re going to try to take the top off.”
Rivera says the defense remains “in flux,” particularly in the secondary, where three of four starters are new. McDermott said last year’s defense had issues to deal with, too.
“No season is without challenge. And we’ve got our challenges right now. We’ve just got to do a better job and we will,” McDermott said. “I have tremendous confidence in the guys in that room. Trust me, I do.”