Carolina Panthers' defense circa 2010: What can we expect?

A few months ago I wrote about the evolution of Ron Meeks' defense over the 2009 season. If you missed those articles you can find part one here and part two here. To give you the Cliff's notes version, essentially Ron Meeks transformed the Carolina Panthers' defense mid season and moved to a cover-one scheme with Chris Harris operating as a rover. The players responded to this scheme and the defense improved greatly.

Today I'm going to try to look a little further ahead into the future to try and predict what Meeks will concoct for the 2010 Carolina Panthers' defense. I'll be doing this by looking at the key changes he made in Indianapolis from his first season in 2002 to his second in 2003. Obviously the Carolina Panthers have a lot more defense talent than those Colts' teams did- however, you can see some patterns emerge that I believe we'll see in 2010.

More after the jump

 

The Colts were a pitiful defense in 2001, which explains why Meeks was brought in to begin with. Let's look at the improvements from 2001 to 2002 for the Colts:

-         8th in the NFL in total yards allowed(up from 29th in 2001)

-         7th in the NFL in points allowed (up from 31st in 2001)

-         2nd in NFL in passing yards allowed (up from 27th in 2001)

-         20th in NFL in rushing yards allowed (up from 25th in 2001)

 

It's clear through looking at these ranking that Meeks made an impact on the Indianapolis Colts defense. If we average out the improvement rankings we can generate an ‘overall improvement index', or for the purposes of this article an ‘OII'. In the instance of the 2001-2002 Colts their OII was +18.75, a dramatic improvement to say the least.

Now, let's look at the 2008-2009 Carolina Panthers and see if these same numbers trend at all:

-         8th in the NFL in total yards allowed (up from 18th in 2008)

-         9th in the NFL in points allowed (up from 12th in 2008)

-         4th in the NFL in passing yards allowed (up from 16th in 2008)

-         22nd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (down from 20th in 2008)

 

In this instance the Carolina Panthers had an OII of +5.75 in 2009. This improvement was not nearly as dramatic as Meeks' improvement for the 2002 Colts; however their defense was in shambles when Meeks took over- realistically Mike Trgovac had very solid personnel for Meeks to work with.

As we continue, let's examine the 2003 Colts and see their OII. They slipped overall and the team posted a -4.75 OII in 2003. Much of this is attributed to their inability to keep teams out of their end zone, where the Colts fell from 7th in the NFL to 20th. After examining the team's roster, statistical breakdown and schedule there is no justification why this occurred, all stats trend very closely to their 2002 counterparts; ultimately, it just came down to players not making plays.

This shows us an important facet to Meeks' defensive schemes; he is a man who lives and dies by his players making plays (or preventing them as the case may be). This flies in the face of the typical ‘bend but don't break' mentality, where teams like New England have made up for defensive deficiencies by merely holding their opponents and preventing scoring rather than worrying about anything else. Meeks runs a very ‘risk v. reward' system as typified by the roles Thomas Davis and Chris Harris played in 2009, and will play in 2010. The system relies heavily on having one safety to cover the deep ball, or one OLB responsible for monitoring the run while Davis blitzes. From the roster moves the Panthers have made thus far this picture begins to take shape.

In 2002 Ron Meeks relied heavily on his defensive line to get pressure on their quarterback. 31 of the team's 36 sacks came from the defensive line, this represented 86.1% of the team's total sacks.

 In 2003 Meeks modified his defense to rely more heavily on blitzing linebackers and safeties, rather than wholly on the defensive line. 24 of the team's 31 sacks came from the defensive line, this represented 77.4% of the team's total sacks.

Where it becomes curious is when you look at what happened to the Carolina Panthers over 2009. In the first 6 games the Panthers had 91.7% of their sacks from players on the defensive line, before Meeks made his transition to a cover one defense. After this transition only 66.8% of the Panthers' sacks came from the defensive line. It was clear that Meeks made his transition to the cover one scheme and with that scheme came a greater emphasis on blitzing with linebackers and safeties to create problems in the backfield.

Now that we see how Meeks likes to use his personnel it becomes clear why he prefers light, lean defenses to larger, hulking ones. This is made abundantly apparent by the shedding of weight Meeks made to the defensive line from 2002 to 2003 for the Colts.

 

In 2002 the Colts' defensive line had an average weight of: 278.5 lbs

In 2003 the Colts' defensive line had an average weight of: 273.5 lbs

In 2009 the Panthers' defensive line had an average weight of: 301 lbs

In 2010 the (projected) Panthers' defensive line will have an average weight of: 294.25 lbs

 

So while it looks like Meeks only shed 5 lbs in both cases, it's what happened the following years that showed the true movement to being leaner. In 2004 the Colts average weight was 268 lbs. Meeks cut another 5 pounds from his line in 2004 and continued to make it leaner. Through this we can see that the move to make the defense lighter doesn't truly happen overnight. Make no mistakes about it, 268 lbs average is incredibly lean for a defensive line, it just shows that Meeks makes this evolution more slowly than in other areas.

Now we can see two areas where Meeks has modified the Carolina Panthers:

  1. Trying to get a more reliable run stopper at OLB across from Thomas Davis to assist when he was blitzing (transition to Dan Connor).
  2. Making the line leaner by replacing Damione Lewis and Hollis Thomas with (prospectively) Louis Leonard and Ed Johnson.

I keep talking about the linebackers and defensive line because they are the power plant of Meeks' defense. Not to take anything away from the secondary, but he uses speed to cause problems for opposing QBs which in turn causes more ill advised passes and gives the secondary more opportunities. If you look at the Colts cornerbacks and safeties for the majority of Meeks' seasons they didn't have the most talented players, but made up for it by having solid play from their defensive front.

Ultimately, this is all a crapshoot. We won't truly know what effect Meeks' moves will have on the Carolina defense until the season gets started, however, from the information we have at this time it looks supremely promising.

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