When Ron Meeks arrived in Carolina there was a lot of fear of the unknown. Meeks was the defensive coordinator for a team never known for a brutal defense, a defense that had been accused of being ‘soft'. Indianapolis relied on speed and execution in a way most other teams did not... they broke the mold. Dwight Freeney was never thought to be big enough to be an impact player in the NFL, but he found a way. Most of all Meeks ran a Tampa, or cover 2 defense, a foreign concept to Panthers fans.
Last week I heard Jon Beason on WFNZ's "Primetime with the Packman" show. They were talking about the 2009 season and Beason was asked what he thought the turning point was for the Panthers' defense. He said that Meeks changed the scheme up and they moved to a cover 1 scheme with more blitzing. This struck a chord with me, as you rarely see a coach willing to change his scheme mid season... but Meeks did; he showed a measure of tactility we're not used to seeing in Carolina, where oftentimes our coaching resembles the team beating their head against a brick wall hoping it will fall down. The shift that Beason is talking about came in week 8 when the Panthers played the Cardinals. In this two part story I will examine Meeks' defense prior to the Cardinals game, and after the Arizona win to look behind the defensive numbers to see exactly what changes Meeks was making.
Let's start with the scheme Meeks brought with him to Carolina. The cover two in its most basic form is dividing the deep field into two distinct halves which each safety is required to cover. For the Panthers this was a distinct shift from Mike Trgovac's scheme which utilized safeties in man coverage. The cover two is often thought of as a ‘bend but don't break' scheme. This allows teams to get short plays as corners normally play off their men, but gives additional assistance in stopping big gains. Lately it has been referred to as the ‘Tampa Two' but realistically this defense came along far before Monte Kiffin in Tampa, most people don't know that the famed Steelers ‘Steel Curtain' defense was little more than a straight cover-2 scheme.
This scheme puts a lot of pressure on linebackers to make plays. Oftentimes safeties will not be as free to assist with run support as they would in a man scheme; obviously Meeks thought we could do this. It also puts a lot of pressure on at least one of your OLBs (in the Panthers' case this was Thomas Davis) to often lineup man coverage with the opposing TE and be the sole defender on passing downs to cover the TE. It also puts a lot of pressure on your safeties who need to read a react very quickly in order to monitor their entire side of the field.
It was clear early in the season that the Panthers were struggling with Meek's scheme. In weeks 1, 2 and 3 the Panthers gave up 1,087 yards of total offense and opposing TEs led their respective team in receiving each game totaling 185 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Panthers were clearly reeling defensively heading into the bye week, and Panther fans had lost all confidence in Meeks and his new scheme.
However, something changed in that bye week... the players started to adapt to Meeks system. Beason said at the time that the players were finally getting a handle on it and the results in the following three weeks were dramatic; the Panthers gave up a total of 620 yards in total offense, and only a combined 29 yards to TEs. The Panthers were catching on to Meeks system. Despite the fact they gave up 414 yards to New Orleans the following week it remained clear that the Panthers were starting to mold themselves to Ron Meeks defense. However, there was one part that was missing... turnovers. The Panthers were simply not winning the turnover battle which is of vital importance to winning in the NFL. Meeks knew that in order to turn his decent defense into a good one he would need to change his scheme and modify if for the second half of the season... and he did just that.
Stay tuned next week when we look at the second half of the Carolina Panthers season from a defensive standpoint when Ron Meeks made the cover-1, blitz heavy adjustments that Jon Beason referenced as well as how the defense dealt with a number of personnel changes that were required.