With underrated linebackers and talanted DBs, Carolina’s defense has transcended recent personnel mistakes
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 wont survive the transition.
Carolinas offense is a nightmare it averages just 157.8 passing yards per game, the NFLs worst. DeAngelo Williams leads the team with 361 rushing yards, but he hasnt 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 hes 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 Seattles 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 NFLs 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 teams 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.
Theyre attacking their fronts are pretty consistent, but theyre doing a lot of coverage stuff and change-up things in their secondary, Pete Carroll said of that defense in his Wednesday presser. Theyre 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 theyre very aggressive with their style of play. Matt (Hasselbeck) is really tuning in, and this is a challenging scheme for him. Theyre not simple. Matts going to be tested, but hes a veteran and he can handle it. Well 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.
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 theyre 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 Carolinas 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 Carolinas offense was unable to match any real opponent production. Mike Williams has far more after-catch burst than Clevelands 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 theyre doing a great job of working around the teams offensive liabilities. If theres one part of this team Seattle shouldnt be overlooking at all, its the defensive back seven, and how they put things together.