It was hardly five minutes from the end of the Week 4 game in Atlanta that the bell started to toll for the Carolina Panthers and their season. Articles ripping the Panthers for letting star corner Josh Norman walk lit up the internet, and they only got more vociferous after the setback against the Bucs on the most recent installment of MNF.
The Panthers are sliding and it’s the defense that’s the problem. To be more specific, the secondary.
Well, yes and no. See, the Panthers obviously have problems – they are sitting at 1-4. But the quick look at the secondary as the problem of this defense is overly simplistic, and not entirely accurate.
Coming into the Atlanta game, the Carolina defense was giving up just 183 yards per game through the air. The top defense in the league at that point was giving up 181. At least coming into Atlanta, the Panthers were doing just fine.
Then Julio Jones happened. But even that game isn’t all that it’s been made out to be. The Panthers brought in James Bradberry to replace Norman as a solid press corner that could play man coverage. Rivera was quick to tab Bradberry as the top corner on the left side, and up until Atlanta, had the rookie guarding the top receivers in man-to-man coverage. But he went down in the Falcons game, and pushed Bene Benwikere, a corner that struggles with man sets, into coverage with the faster Jones.
— Carolina Panthers (@C_PanthersNews) October 11, 2016
And of course, the secondary was always thin, filled with rookies and unproven players. So with the injury of Bradberry, and the release of Bene, things go thin. But the Panthers believed their own criticisms before the season began, and put some leverage into the secondary issues by taking their front seven’s best weapon away from them and using it to bolster the secondary.
Put another way: because the Panthers think the secondary can’t handle coverage situations against better passing teams, the Panthers are dropping their linebackers at a much higher rate than they did a season ago. Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson most frequently are dropped into underneath sets to give the secondary insurance on throws underneath. The problem with that is it takes the extra pass rush out of the game entirely, and has put the onus on the defensive line alone to get to the quarterback.
Which gets us to defensive problem number two: the line isn’t generating near the pressure that it did a year ago. Last year, the Panthers could get pressure with just three or four rushers. This year, they are dead last in hits on opposing quarterbacks, and average 4.8 rushers each time they hit the quarterback, compared with 4.1 a season ago.
That may not seem like a large discrepancy, but that alone is one extra defender that could be helping in underneath coverage or the secondary that instead has to be used just to get to the QB. The line play is the big problem, and making the secondary issues much worse by giving the quarterback all the time in the world to throw.
— Panthers Fans (@PanthersViews) October 11, 2016
But wait, I’ve got more. Arguably the biggest problem that the offense is giving the ball away, and giving short fields to the opposing offenses. The Panthers committed 19 turnovers last season, the fewest in the NFL. This season? The count 14 already, including 10 interceptions.
For as “horrible” as the Carolina defense was against Tampa Bay, they gave up just one touchdown all night to Winston and the Bucs, and it was the offense that turned the ball over four times, including twice in their own territory. Short fields kill defenses, especially when they aren’t getting turnovers to boot.
However, it’s not time to count Carolina out just yet. The Panthers have a tough test coming up in aerial attack of the Saints, a team that can be streaky. The Panthers secondary should be given the green light to play the man coverage they were brought in to do, and stop trying to be something they aren’t. Like the linebackers play seven yards off the line, and focused on the underneath game.
The Panthers next five opponents are a combined 9-13, and the Falcons above them face three division leaders in five games. The Panthers are far from out of things in the NFC, and far from done in the NFC South. The game against New Orleans is for sure a must win, but until then, be careful writing off the defending conference champs.
Without Josh Norman, the Carolina Panthers’ pass defense has collapsed at a historic level. https://t.co/IyRwm2KRet
— WSJ Sports (@WSJSports) October 10, 2016
Josh Norman wouldn’t have saved this secondary, and blaming them for the sudden skid of the Panthers is an overreach. The Panthers have problems, but it’s one of identity, not talent. We’ll find out if they figure it out by Sunday, or if it really is time to write off the Cats.