There was a point late in Carolina’s “Monday Night Football” game against Tampa Bay where ESPN’s Jon Gruden seemed to be as bewildered by the Panthers’ lack of a pass rush as the team’s fans have been all season.
“Somebody has got to get near Jameis Winston,” Gruden said.
But – as has become a familiar pattern in this lost-in-the-wilderness Panthers 2016 season – no one did. Winston stayed in the pocket and picked the Panthers apart until Tampa Bay got into field-goal range. A field goal on the final play meant the Buccaneers won 17-14.
If you think that was bad, watch what New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees does Sunday whenever there is no rush. No one in the NFL can throw a ball more accurately when he has time than Brees, who will be a certain hall of famer once he retires.
Brees is extremely hard to sack because he throws so quickly, although that doesn’t mean he cannot be pressured by a good rush. But the Panthers don’t have one right now – not even close.
It’s a sad commentary that Carolina’s reserve safety, Tre Boston, leads the team in sacks with two. Reserve defensive tackle Kyle Love – who wasn’t even on the team until recently – is second at 1.5. Starting defensive ends Kony Ealy and Charles Johnson are staring at zeroes in the “sack” column. Carolina has 11 sacks through five games after posting 44 in the 2015 regular season.
Carolina hasn’t been able to get pressure consistently unless it blitzes, and the blitz leaves an already young and underachieving secondary even more exposed.
A good pass rush means more pressure, which means more turnovers, which means more points.
Sacks aren’t necessarily the ultimate byproduct of a pass rush like Minnesota’s or Denver’s – turnovers are.
Remember Kawann Short’s pressure of Russell Wilson in the playoff game vs. Seattle in January? Short didn’t wind up with the sack, but Wilson made a terrible decision and forced a pass that Luke Kuechly intercepted and ran in for a touchdown.
That’s the sort of play that has been sorely missing for Carolina this season. And where has Short been anyway? The star defensive tackle was a Pro Bowler and had a team-high 11 sacks in 2015. The Panthers plan to sign him to a monstrous contract that will pay him eight figures for the next several years.
But Short has only one sack this season and has made very few big plays. The Panthers’ best players must play better on defense – and that includes linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Zero turnovers against an average team like Tampa Bay just isn’t acceptable.
A problem in the making
This pass rush problem has been building for awhile. Johnson, for instance, has a lot of mileage in his 10th year. He remains good against the run, can get close to the quarterback (he leads the team in pressures) and was kind enough to sign a contract at a reduced price to play for Carolina in 2016. But Johnson also had only one sack in an injury-plagued 2015 regular season. So No. 95 having zero sacks right now isn’t a huge surprise.
He had a breakout performance in the Super Bowl against Denver eight months ago and looked like he might become the Panthers’ next defensive stud. So far this season, though, Ealy’s most notable play was the critical facemask penalty that got Tampa Bay 15 yards closer to the game-winning field goal Monday night.
New Orleans is going to gain a lot of yards Sunday – no way around that. Brees is just too good not to move the ball, especially at home. And the New Orleans offense is No. 2 in the NFL in passing yardage (304.3 per game).
But what Carolina absolutely must have to help out its embattled secondary is a better pass rush. Until that happens, this Panthers season is going nowhere.