Thinking about the defense. What's it looking like in 2011?

One of the best things about the off-season is the speculation. We get to think about Free Agency, we get to think about the Draft, and we get to think about all those Training Camp battles and who will start.

And although it really stinks to be 2-14, this year we do get a little bonus. Thanks to the coaching change, we now get to speculate on what the new coaches will do. And that's kind of what this post is about.

Note that there's no inside knowledge at work here. Everything laid out before you is based on the history of Rivera and his coordinators. And as such, it could be wildly wrong. Or it could be spot-on.

It's probably somewhere in between, but it's worth talking about anyway because frankly, speculation is fun. So let's speculate.

And let's start by thinking about the Defense.

First things first. We need to start with a discussion of the basic defensive front and philosophy, and also talk about blitzing.

The blitz is basically what you call sending a linebacker or a defensive back into the backfield, by design. This may seem like a super obvious statement, but there have been enough erroneous posts over the past year talking about sending Charles Johnson in on a blitz that it probably needs to be said.

Fans love the blitz, because when it works well it looks like you've just overwhelmed the opponent, and it results in a big play. But the blitz isn't some sort of "Now we've got them!" attack that always works. Blitzing can be effective, but it can also open you up to tons of big gains. Just send the same blitz at Peyton Manning in three successive plays and you'll see what I mean.

And your average fan is a lot less likely to notice blitzes that don't work as blitzes--they just call them busted coverages or missed tackles. To your average fan, a blitz is what happens only when you see a linebacker or defensive back disrupting the play in the backfield. To these people, it's not what happens when one of them rushes the passer while he calmly puts the ball where they just were, for a decent gain.

In the 3-4 you tend to use the blitz more because you're sending a Linebacker far more often. So naturally, your average fan who wants an aggressive defense will be calling for the 3-4, also because Pittsburgh and Baltimore run it.

And after all, Rivera ran it in San Diego, right? Well, it's not going to happen. We don't have the personnel for it, and the defensive front doesn't make or break the defense.

And honestly, every team in the NFL runs plays out of both the 4-3 and the 3-4 at times. What we're talking about is the front in the base defense.

So about the Panthers. To start with, take a look at what John Fox had. For several years we ran a basic cover-2 defense, with a true Nose Tackle lined up over Center, while pressure came from Peppers' side of the line.

Then came Ron Meeks, and an injury to Ma'ake Kemoeatu.  Meeks put us in more of a Tampa-2 defense. And in it, with the lack of a true Nose Tackle, we ran your standard 4-3 under front formation (yeah, I know it's a little more involved than that, but go ahead and correct me in the comments).

At a high level, here's what that means. The DEs line up outside of the Tackles. One DT is designated as the Nose Tackle, and lines up in a 1-technique on the strong side's A gap. It looks something like this:

 . . . . . .LB . . . . . . . 
LB. . . . . . . . . . . . LB
. DE. UT. . .NT . . . DE .
. . LT. LG. C. RG. RT. TE
. . . . . . QB . . . . . . .

(That means the NT is lined up directly in the A gap. 2-Technique is on the Guard. 3 is in the B gap, 4 is on the Tackle, 5 is in the C, etc. And the gaps are the spaces between the Offensive Linemen, with A being between the Guard and Center, B between the Guard and Tackle, C between the Tackle and Tight End. Strong Side is the side the Tight End lines up on).

The other DT is called the Under Tackle, and lines up in the 3-Technique on the weak side. What this means is that each offensive lineman is engaged (the NT takes both the Guard and Center), leaving the Fullback to choose between the MLB and the WLB. If you don't have solid DT play, particularly at the NT position, then your 275 pound center will be free to take on the 240 pound linebacker, leaving the fullback to take on a Safety and opening you up for 7-8 yard gains up the middle.

By the way, this is where all of you Nick Fairley fans need to chime in and talk about drafting him.  If there's a weakness on the Carolina defense (and there is), it's at the Defensive Tackle position, particularly at Nose Tackle.  Fairly has the size to be a decent NT, but he's got the moves to be an outstanding UT.  But DTs don't generally make an impact in their first year, and we're really in a different discussion now.  So back to the history review.

When Ron Meeks came to Carolina, the Panthers shifted to a Tampa 2 defense, which basically took advantage of Jon Beason's speed. The main difference between the basic Cover-2 and the Tampa-2 is that the Middle Linebacker has to cover the center of the field on passing plays, while the WLB and SLB's coverage areas expand a little, particularly closer to the line. The biggest deal is that the safeties no longer each have to cover half the field, so you get better zone coverage deep.

That's a subtle difference, and it doesn't really capture all the changes Meeks made. One of the biggest differences between his scheme and Trgovac's is in the way he wanted it executed.

Trgovac's system was pure cover-2, and relied on players following certain rules based on where the offense was. When it worked, there was always someone in any area where a ball might be thrown. When it didn't, you would find a busted coverage and a big gain, with predictable cries to bench the Safety.

Meeks, on the other hand, preferred a "read and react" style that allows the defensive backs to use common sense, experience, and their instinct to determine the coverage. There are general rules at hand, but when the play is underway the back should just fly to the ball and make the play, rather than think about where he's supposed to be at the moment.

This proved to be better for the personnel, as the Panthers' secondary had more speed than experience. And it should still be the preferred approach, because Carolina still has those speedy, athletic defensive backs. More on that later.

Another difference is that in Trgovac's system, players had multiple areas of responsibility on each play, and therefore weren't free to just attack.  But on the plus side, it was unpredictable and caused a certain amount of uncertainty on the part of the offense.  It also caused more than a few discussions wondering what Kemo was doing in coverage, but that was part of it (and probably will be again).

Meeks' Tampa 2 was less complicated, and that has it's own flaws.  When you're facing a basic Cover 2/Tampa 2, it's generally easy to pick up on the blitz because there's only so many places it can come from.  Offenses put a hot read for the receiver to fill the gap the blitzing defender is going to leave, and then the offense just plays pitch and catch. So Meeks' system worked well for our players, but not as far as blitzing effectiveness.

It also put such a high premium on getting to the quarterback quickly that the DEs developed tendencies to take inside moves more often than not.  Not only is that generally quicker, they needed to because the DTs didn't produce enough interior pressure.  That left the edge open for teams to run along the edge.  It also made us very vulnerable to screens and short dumps to the running backs (remember Peyton Hillis just killing us?).

Blitzing is common enough in the basic Cover-2 set, but in general pressure is supposed to come from the front four, while the rest of the defense stays in zone and makes sure that if there is a play, it happens in front of them. Both of these defenses are softer between the 20s, when they have larger coverage zones, but as the offense gets into the red zone those coverage areas get smaller, and the offense finds it harder to move the ball.

This is also known as the "Bend but don't break" defense. And fans in Carolina are sick of it.

The best way to attack this sort of defense is with a strong running game. If the back can get through the line, preferably with the fullback taking out the MLB, then you have to wait for the safety to come up from their zone to make the play. A team with a strong interior running game will beat up a cover-2 defense, and won't be fazed much by the tighter coverage in the red zone.

So why will we run the 4-3 cover-2? Well, that's where our experience lies. In Chicago, Rivera ran the Tampa-2 under Lovie Smith. And in Philadelphia, McDermott ran a Jim Johnson cover-2 with a zone blitz package.

'Huh?", you say? "What's a Jim Johnson Zone Blitz?  Well, a zone blitz is what you have when you send a linebacker or defensive back at the quarterback while maintaining your zone coverage.  This is commonly done by dropping a defensive lineman into coverage, and shifting the linebackers around to make it work.

"But we did that under Fox, and no one called it Zone Blitzing then!"  Yup, we did that, we ran 3-4 at times, we ran a variation of Buddy Ryan's 46 defense.  But we really ran the Tampa 2.  At this level, every defense has plays that are taken directly from other playbooks. It's how things are done in the NFL.

So the Panthers will still run a Cover 2, but they'll also do all the wacky stuff we have seen over the years, and they'll also probably run more Jim Johnson style zone blitzing than we have in the past.  And since that can be accomplished with a quick, last minute shift of Linebackers right before the snap, I *speculate* that we see it a lot.  Especially since it takes good advantage of our personnel.

The big difference between those two defenses in the set is mainly in where the linebackers lined up. The Jim Johnson set brings the WLB in toward the center and almost frees the MLB from normal Cover-2 responsibilities. Here's what it looks like.

 . . . . . . . . .LB . . . . 
 . . . LB. . . . . . . . . LB
 . DE. UT. . . NT. . . DE .
 . . LT. LG. C. RG. RT. TE
 . . . . . . QB . . . . . .

The WLB is still in charge of the run to the weak side, and for intermediate coverage, and the SLB's responsibilities are unchanged. But the MLB is allowed to be more aggressive in the running game, and will generally be called on to blitz up the middle, aiming for the gap where the running back may go on a running play.  The DE may drop back in coverage to spell him, or the SS might come up and leave the defense in a cover-1. 

Either way, it's textbook zone blitz, and it covers the interior run well.  For perspective, the Eagles ran the run blitz about 65% of the time when Jim Johnson was the DC, with Jeremiah Trotter barreling up the middle to disrupt the running play or collapse the pocket.  How many pro bowls did that guy make again?

And when Trotter wasn't blitzing, he dropped back into coverage, taking on the assignment of one of the Safeties to free a Defensive Back up from their normal responsibility. At which time the DB would either spy, or more often or not, blitz. But I digress.  And again, this is a discussion about the base set, not a nickel or dime package.

So, when you look at our personnel, and at our coaches, the Panthers will almost assuredly run a cover-2 as their base set.  But you can expect to see them line up in both the traditional formation and the JJ formation, just to disguise where the blitz is coming from.

And blitz they will. More on that in a minute.

The other formation you're going to see a lot will contain elements of the 3-4. Now don't let that get you too excited. As I mentioned earlier, every team in the league runs both sets. And the Panthers will be no different.

Let's stop and talk about personnel for a minute too. Last season the Panthers lost Thomas Davis, and Jon Beason slid over to take his spot. That left the middle linebacker position open, and Dan Connor stepped in to play there. And he promptly showed skills that made him one of the best inside linebackers in the game.

Let that sink in for a minute. Connor isn't great in coverage, so he's not your every down back that Beason is. And because he's not great in coverage, he isn't the best fit for the Tampa 2. But Connor diagnoses the play quickly, gets to the line in a hurry, sheds blocks well, and has great fundamental tackling skills.

In a Jim Johnson system, he would be an ideal middle linebacker in the Jeremiah Trotter mold.

Now think about another player, second year man Eric Norwood. He didn't do a lot last year, but he's an outstanding edge rusher in the Elvis Dumervile mold, and has the speed and size to be an effective outside linebacker in a 3-4 front.

Chew on that when we talk about a 3-4 formation. Here's what you're basically looking at:

 . . . . . LB.  . LB . . . . 
 . LB. . . . . . . . . . LB
 . . DE. . . .NT. . .DE .
 . . LT. LG. C. RG. RT. TE
 . . . . . . QB . . . . . .

Now this represents a fair amount of guesswork, err... supposition I mean, right away.

Anyone who knows the 3-4 will immediately see that the Nose Tackle and the strongside DE aren't lined up normally. You would expect the Nose Tackle to be in a 0 technique, lined up right over the center. And the Strongside DE should be in the 5 technique, instead he's in 6 across from the C gap.

Why run it this way? Well, the Panthers don't have a huge, 0-technique Nose Tackle in the Ma'ake Kemoeatu mold any more. They're going to have to rely more on quickness, hence the Bum Phillips 3-4 style shown above.

In this, the Weakside DE is going to have to be disruptive enough to command a double-team from the Tackle and Guard in this formation (Charles Johnson, anyone?). And the Weakside ILB is going to have to cover both the A gap and the B gap in the running game, just in case the DE goes around the outside. And who would be most outstanding at that? Young Mr. Connor, that's who.

That leaves Beason on the Strongside ILB spot, free to blitz, drop in coverage, or mind the B gap. Either OLB can blitz out of this package, which is tailor made for Thomas Davis and Eric Norwood.

The Panthers really don't have the personnel to do this on a constant basis, they're just not big enough.  But they can certainly throw it in the mix, and when you combine speed and surprise, you can be just plain deadly.

Which is why throwing it in the mix is decidedly in the cards for Ron Rivera. He's mentioned more than once that he wants to dictate what the offense will do, rather than be passive and let the play come to him.

And he has also said he wants to create uncertainty. He wants to be aggressive. But that's NOT the same thing as saying that he wants to blitz every other down.

Blitzing makes things more extreme than normal, either you get very good things from one or you risk having very bad things happen. And a blitz isn't going to scare any NFL Quarterback worth his salt, unless it takes him by surprise. Which, coincidentally, is what the Panthers will likely try and do.

Last season, Rivera's Chargers didn't necessarily blitz more than any other team in the league, but they got the most sacks, and over half of their sacks came when they sent five or more men after the quarterback. That speaks to his sense of timing, and the effectiveness of his blitzes.

Jim Johnson was famous for blitzing from crazy spots at crazy times, and working to keep the offense off balance. In his scheme, all four defensive linemen should penetrate into the backfield as quickly as possible, but all four also need to be quick enough to drop back and play in coverage. When a play is unfolding, the idea is to not give the Quarterback enough time to notice that the guy matched up against his slot receiver is a 325 pound tackle.

But that guy may be out there covering, leaving the opposing center and right guard trying to block air while the middle linebacker is helping overload the weak side. The Middle Linebacker also run-blitzed over half the time in Johnson's scheme, and the rest of the time he stayed in coverage.

In the secondary, the cornerbacks will likely line up in an intermediate zone coverage, meaning Panther fans will see that cushion that we all hate. It can't be helped though, because the Safeties will either be blitzing, lining up to cover for a blitzing linebacker, or covering in a zone. The point is uncertainty.

Another thing Johnson did extremely well was providing line stunts and misdirection to confuse blocking schemes.  He would fake a blitz from one side and send it from the other.  Instead of relying on physical strength, like Fox, Johnson went more for trickery and scheming.

You can't emphasize this enough.  Johnson's goal was to confuse the offense into making mistakes.  Forget about lining up in a straight cover 2, forget trying to win all the individual matchups. Just confuse them into stopping themselves.

Sean McDermott knows the Jim Johnson zone blitzing scheme as well as anyone in football. But last year he couldn't be particularly effective with it. The main criticisms of him centered on his sense of timing, he couldn't confuse people like Johnson could.

But that's ok, because you have to get a sense that Rivera, who has a good sense of timing, will help him there. Which makes for a lot of good potential for a totally entertaining defense in 2011.

With all that blitzing, and the zone blitzing style, there's going to be a lot of pressure on the defensive backs. Johnson's system puts a ton of responsibility on the safeties to attack the ball, and it needs corners that can aggressively cover guys who venture in their area.  That's a far cry from the more passive system they ran under Fox. You'll often see a cornerback on an island with a receiver, manning up as the play develops to provide deep coverage. That's going to require quick thinking, quick reading of the play as it develops, and quick reaction to what's happening.

Sound familiar? It should--that's the philosophy that Ron Meeks preaches. Remember we said we would come back to him?

Prior to his stints as Defensive Coordinator for the Colts and Panthers, Ron Meeks was an outstanding Defensive Backs coach for the Cincinatti Bengals and Atlanta Falcons, and later the Washington Redskins and St. Louis Rams.

At every stop, he helped a player reach the pro bowl. For five of his seven years in Indianapolis, the Colts finished in the top six in the league in pass defense.

Basically, Meeks can seriously coach up some defensive backs. And while it may be a surprise to some that he accepted a demotion from his defensive coordinator position, it's likely that he ends up still being one of the most important defensive coaches on staff. If his backs can hold up while the defense throws the kitchen sink at the quarterback, then Rivera's goal of creating chaos and confusion on the offense is going to go pretty well.

So in sum, it looks like the Panthers will show a lot of the same basic formations that we're used to. And fans will be used to that, having gone through a significant change when Meeks took over for Trgovac.

But the execution should be very, very different.

Look for the Panthers to confuse and confound in 2011. And if they can get a great Nose Tackle during free agency, don't be surprised if they look as dominant as the early John Fox defenses did.

And that's enough guessing about the 2011 defense. Next time we'll take a look at what changes we can expect on the other side of the ball.

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