The Carolina Panthers’ defense closed the regular season with a flourish, scoring a pair of touchdowns in the division-clinching, 34-3 win Sunday at Atlanta.
It was the capper to a slow, steady climb back toward the top of the league’s defensive standings for a unit that was languishing among the NFL’s worst during October.
Despite the loss of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy for the final 14 games and a late-season change to half of the defensive backfield, the Panthers finished the regular season 10th in total defense, with 339.8 yards allowed a game.
It’s the third consecutive year the Panthers have finished among the top 10 defensively under coordinator Sean McDermott, who interviewed for Washington’s head-coaching vacancy last offseason and could draw interest again.
Five teams have openings, three after firing their coaches Monday and Jim Harbaugh’s departure Sunday from San Francisco.
“It’s an honor to be in that conversation at this time of year. My focus is on this football team 110 percent,” McDermott said. “We’ve got a job to do this week with a good football team coming in here. But again, to have my name in that conversation is great.”
McDermott, 40, received a substantial raise last offseason after the Panthers were second behind Super Bowl champion Seattle in total defense and scoring defense.
But the defense struggled early this year trying to replace Hardy’s pass-rush presence and working through different combinations in a rebuilt secondary.
After giving up 363 yards during an Oct. 19 loss at Green Bay, the Panthers were 27th in total defense, allowing 388.3 yards a game.
But McDermott said coaches saw “glimmers of hope,” despite the early-season issues.
“We stayed true to our vision. We stayed true to what we were asking our players to do,” McDermott said. “We made some personnel moves that worked out in our favor. We developed some younger, newer players.”
The Panthers cut veteran safety Charles Godfrey during October after he struggled making the move to cornerback. Cornerback Antoine Cason, a free-agent addition in March, was waived this month after giving up a touchdown in a loss at Minnesota.
Safety Thomas DeCoud, another free-agent acquisition, was benched following the Vikings’ loss. The Panthers turned to rookies Bené Benwikere and Tre Boston to take over for Cason and DeCoud.
Boston, a fourth-round pick from North Carolina, scored on an 84-yard interception return Sunday against the Falcons. Boston’s touchdown, combined with strong safety Roman Harper’s 31-yard interception return during the first half, gave the Panthers two defensive scores in a game for the first time in their history.
McDermott said he’s pleased with the strides the defense has taken since the slow start.
“Certainly, a lot to be proud of and we’ve got to continue moving forward,” he said. “We’re not where we want to be yet as a team and the defense has to help with that. But you take a lot of gratification in knowing you’ve done some good things.”