The Carolina Panthers have been known for the past few years for the outstanding defense. This year, Cam Newton elevated the offense to new heights, and that left the defense to be brushed under the rug by many. They have not fallen off at all. If anything, the full blossoming of Josh Norman made the defense better than it had been previously. Though, there are concerns with the shape of the secondary outside of Norman, namely at cornerback.
Bene Benwikere will not be able to perform in the playoffs because he fractured his ankle in the week 15 game against the New York Giants. Without him, the left cornerback position is left to Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan, both of whom are well past their primes as players. Both were smaller corners who revolved their game around quickness and scrappiness, but neither of those traits have held up well for either of them in their age. Luckily, the role of the cornerback in Carolina is mitigated by outstanding front seven play.
Carolina’s defense finished sixth in the league in sacks with a total of 44, coming in at just under three sacks per game. With Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei bolstering the middle of the defensive line and creating an interior push, the edge rushers and blitzing linebackers have had an easier job of finding their own ways to get to the quarterback. Carolina’s interior duo is one of the best in the league and creates the sort of chaos that quarterbacks hate: plays blowing up in their face. It is much easier for a quarterback to step up into the pocket to avoid and edge rusher than it is for them to escape an entirely broken pocket. Naturally, 300-plus pound men blowing up your 300-plus pound men and running straight for you is going to create panic in a quarterback’s head, often leading to sacks or poorly thrown passes that can be intercepted. To no surprise, this formula lead to the Panthers leading in the league in interceptions.
Do not undervalue Carolina’s linebackers either. Luke Kuechly has grown into himself entirely and become one of the scariest defenders in the league. Not only is he a heat-seeking missile in the run game, but his understanding of opposing pass concepts and athleticism make him a useful coverage piece. He gets into his zone drops quickly, seldom allowing himself to be beaten over the top. In addition, Kuechly reads quarterbacks’ eyes well and flows to the catch point quickly to disrupt or minimize the gain of a pass play. His command of the middle allows the cornerbacks and safeties to feel more comfortable about ‘shading’ their coverage to the boundary.
Thomas Davis is also one of the league’s best coverage linebackers for all of the same reasons Kuechly is. In fact, Davis is a stellar man-to-man coverage piece as well. Despite his handful of knee surgeries, Davis still moves around like a spry cat when covering opposing tight ends. Davis has always been one of the best coverage linebackers and is now even more valuable with an improved Kuechly by his side.
The younger players, AJ Klein and Shaq Thompson, are not nearly on the same level as their peers, but have done an adequate job in coverage, which is more than enough when surrounded by the other two. The coverage play of all of Carolina’s linebackers over the middle of the field gives the defensive backs a bit more freedom to more quickly react to deep and out-breaking routes. This not only minimizes big plays, but it also allows the defense themselves to create big plays. When a defense can stop big plays from the offense and create big plays for themselves, success is bound to be present.
Of course, this is not all to say Carolina’s defensive backs are bad. Norman is an arguably elite defender in his own right and has become one of the most feared cornerbacks in the league. Behind him, Kurt Coleman has done a surprisingly impressive job at safety this year after having been a train wreck in Philadelphia. Roman Harper and Colin Jones have also done solid jobs as contributing/role players for the defensive secondary. The menacing front seven certainly helps their play, but there is credit to be handed out to Carolina’s defensive backs coach here.
The injury of Benwikere and the instability of Tillman/Finnegan certainly do not help the defense, but the mass amount of talent outside of that left cornerback spot is astounding. On a player-by-player basis, few defenses rival Carolina’s. Their defensive secondary does not look the best on paper, but the pressure that the front line causes and the area of field that the linebackers are able to cover vastly simplifies what the defensive backs need to do, allowing them to think faster and play faster. Injuries and old age at cornerback be darned, Carolina’s defense will be just fine.