BY Doug Farrar 08:49AM 12/02/2010

1-10 Panthers have pride in defense

With underrated linebackers and talanted DBs, Carolina’s defense has transcended recent personnel mistakes

Matt Hasselbeck throws a pass during practice as quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch observes (Rod Mar/Seattle Seahawks)

If the Seahawks are looking for a pick-me-up after their home loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Carolina Panthers might be just what the team has been hoping for. The 1-10 Panthers are a bottomed-out franchise with a heavy rebuild forthcoming, and a coach/general manager combination in John Fox and Marty Hurney who probably won’t survive the transition.

Carolina’s offense is a nightmare – it averages just 157.8 passing yards per game, the NFL’s worst. DeAngelo Williams leads the team with 361 rushing yards, but he hasn’t played since Week 7, and he was placed on injured reserve a few weeks ago. Former leading passer Matt Moore has thrown twice as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (five), and rookie Jimmy Clausen has thrown just one touchdown to his five picks, and he’s been sacked 16 times with just 166 pass attempts.

Steve Smith, the former All-Pro receiver, is suffering from a severe case of quarterback anemia – he leads the team with just 36 catches on 74 targets for 411 yards and two touchdowns. Though Pete Carroll is already cautioning his team against overlooking this hot mess of an offense, the Panthers should still be easy pickings for Seattle’s inconsistent defensive squad.

Where the Panthers are still a team of reasonable quality is on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerback Richard Marshall and safety Charles Godfrey have six interceptions between them, and cornerback Chris Gamble has eight passes defensed, masking an unlucky total of zero picks. Linebacker James Anderson might be the NFL’s most underrated defensive player; he ranks very highly in most of Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics. And even when the Panthers’ offenses gets bombed out, the team’s defense manages to hold up pretty well for a unit with no support on the other side of the ball. Right now, Carolina ranks 14th in Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA metrics — 11th against the pass, and 21st against the run. And because of the efforts of that secondary, the Panthers rank fifth in per-play efficiency against #1 receivers, and first overall against #2 receivers.

“They’re attacking – their fronts are pretty consistent, but they’re doing a lot of coverage stuff and change-up things in their secondary,” Pete Carroll said of that defense in his Wednesday presser. “They’re trying to cause you problems with their looks, and the pressure they bring. (Panthers head coach) John (Fox) has been around a long time, and his guys do a nice job with their scheme. It could be a real problem – they’re very aggressive with their style of play. Matt (Hasselbeck) is really tuning in, and this is a challenging scheme for him. They’re not simple. Matt’s going to be tested, but he’s a veteran and he can handle it. We’ll need the whole week to get that done, for sure.”

Hasselbeck upped the Panthers love-fest ante on Thursday by comparing linebacker Jon Beason to San Francisco’s Patrick Willis, the 49ers defender who has long been recognized as one of the NFL’s best inside ‘backers, and whom Hasselbeck has to contend with twice per season.

Panthers linebackers give different zone looks, making flats and seams tough sledding for enemy quarterbacks, (Doug Farrar/Sports Press Northwest)

Carolina runs a 4-3 base defense with linebackers who can backpedal and make plays in space; as a result, they throw a lot of different zone looks at enemy offenses, and they’re more assignment-correct than you might expect. In their 16-14 loss to the Saints in Week 4, the Panthers were able to effectively counter a short passing game not unlike what the Seahawks might send out there if Mike Williams can go. One play in particular, an incomplete pass with 4:26 left in the first half, stood out to me.

Carolina put a tight 4-3 (closer safety coverage than your usual Cover-2) against New Orleans’ two-tight end motion set. With Devery Henderson (19) in motion, Henderson and Robert Meachem (17) ran clearing routes to the weak side, with Beason (52) dropping into coverage. The Panthers had the short routes covered, and there was enough pressure from the edges of Carolina’s front four to force quarterback Drew Brees into a quick decision. With Beason coming back to help cover the already-covered left hash and flat, Brees had to throw the ball away.

When the Panthers played the Browns last week, Cleveland posted up against the zone defense with quick hitch passes, comebacks, and other yards-after-catch concepts. It was a strategy that only worked because Carolina’s offense was unable to match any real opponent production. Mike Williams has far more after-catch burst than Cleveland’s Brian Robiskie, which means that the Seahawks may want to implement a similar strategy.

The Panthers are a bad team with a good defense; their concepts of spacing in coverage are solid, and they’re doing a great job of working around the team’s offensive liabilities. If there’s one part of this team Seattle shouldn’t be overlooking at all, it’s the defensive back seven, and how they put things together.