Almost overshadowed by our abysmal run defense, Carolina's secondary has worked their way into the top 10 in pass defense and is all but knocking the door down to get into the top 5. They started slow, allowing Kevin Kolb to carve us up and look like a pro-bowler week 1 of the season, but have tightened the bolts and came together over the first quarter of the season. It is my hope that I can provide a convincing argument as to why we should all be excited for this group that many consider to be one of our bigger weaknesses.
Here's a look at how opposing quarterbacks played against the Panthers secondary in comparison to how they performed, on average, in their other 3 games.
Week 1: Kevin Kolb
vs Panthers: 27 att, 66.7%, 309 yds, 2 TD, 0 INT, 130.0 QBR
Average: 34 att, 59.9%, 247 yds, 1 TD, 1.3 INT, 76.7 QBR
Ouch! It's just as bad in retrospect as it felt during, and directly after, the game. With our new staff and new scheme, we just weren't ready yet. He exceeded what would eventually be his first quarter average in every category except the one we'd want, the interceptions. The bottom line is: our impromptu defense made an average quarterback look elite.
Week 2: vs. Aaron Rodgers
vs Panthers: 30 att, 63.3%, 308 yds, 2 TD, 0 INT, 119.9 QBR
Average: 37 att, 75.7%, 339 yds, 3.3 TD, 0.66 INT, 126 QBR
After making Kevin Kolb look like a world-beater, I imagine many fans were extremely worried about the defending Super Bowl champions coming to town and Aaron Rodgers having a phenomenal game. While Rodgers definitely had a good, even great, game against our secondary, it was actually below his first quarter average. While we still came up short in terms of interceptions, everything else was negative (which is positive for us). The biggest difference I see is the 12.4% deviation in completion percentage. Rodgers was coming off of a game against New Orleans where he completed an astounding 77.1% of his 35 pass attempts and jumped right back into the 70's after playing against us, averaging 73.7% against Chicago the following week. At the time, it looked like Rodgers just had an off-week but I believe we were starting to see our secondary come together, both in terms of chemistry with one another and familiarity of the scheme.
Week 3: vs. Blaine Gabbert
vs Panthers: 21 att, 57.1%, 139 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT, 73.3 QBR
Average: 24 att, 60.7%, 124 yds, 0.5 TD, 0.5 INT, 77 QBR
This one is the most deceiving of the comparisons. What Gabberts "average" really consists of is his excellent, albeit brief, late game duty against the Jets (or as some would call it: garbage time) and overabundance of pitiful stats against next weeks opponent, New Orleans (we're talking 42 attempts with a 38.1% completion rate). While Gabbert seems to have performed in line with his average against us, I'd really have to label this one as being inconclusive, at least until Gabbert gets two more starts under his belt.
Week 4: vs. Jay Cutler
vs Panthers: 17 att, 52.9%, 102 yds, 0 TD, 1 INT, 46.7 QBR
Average: 38 att, 55.9%, 286 yds, 1.7 TD, 1 INT, 83.6 QBR
While Jay Cutlers inconsistency remains about the same, still completing just over half of his attempts, the rest of his stats really jump out to me. Prior to facing the Panthers, Cutler was averaging 286 yards per game. If he had approximately continued with that average, he would currently be ranked 9th. However, add in the Panthers and Cutler drops to 240, placing him at 21st. Facing the Panthers secondary caused Cutler to drop from top 10 to right outside of the bottom third. Of course, yards per game is just one stat and could never tell the whole story but when coupled with the fact that Cutler was also averaging nearly 2 touchdowns per game and we held him to none, we have to think that the Panthers secondary is headed in the right direction.
That just leaves me with one question regarding Cutler... Is he really that bad? When your running back leads the team in receptions and you still can't break 55% for the season, I have to wonder...
Week 5: vs. Drew Brees
Speaking of running backs that lead their team in receptions, we face another quick back that likes to catch and run this week in Darren Sproles. I'm not worried about Ingram or Thomas but, honestly, Sproles scares me. In my opinion, he's going to be a huge factor in this game and could be the difference in a win or loss. If we let Sproles run freely like Forte, it's going to be a long Sunday for us Panther fans.
For fun, lets look at Brees' season to date then we can compare after the game to see if the Panthers continue their recent trend of holding opponents to or under their average.
43 att, 69%, 352 yds, 2.5 TD, 1 INT, 102.9 QBR
Yes, that looks scary but I believe we have the secondary to hold Brees in check, at least enough to remain competitive throughout the game. It'll be our offenses job to handle the rest. My predictions for Brees' game-time stats, hyperbole aside, are...
46 att, 67%, 325 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT, 100 QBR
Will I be right? Who knows, I'm just a Panther fan who does this for fun, but I definitely wouldn't be surprised to see Brees finish the game with a similar stat line. I also expect Newton to keep us in this one, a game in which the winner must score into the high 20's, at least.
Do we win this game? Realistically, probably not. Do we gain a lot of valuable experience and see a spectacular performance by Newton & Co while our team continues to develop? I'd be willing to say absolutely. We're still a young team and, just like our secondary, we're still coming together and getting better. The swamp-like Jacksonville game aside, we've outscored ourselves every week. Lets hope this one is no different as we hang 30+ points on the Saints and finally give the NFL the performance they've been waiting on.
I hope that by looking at our consistent week-to-week improvement against the pass as well as comparing our opponents performance against us to their average, we can consider this a solid unit on the rise that is well worthy of their ranking at sixth. I think it's safe to write off our early deficiencies to a new staff, a new system, and a lack of time. Our secondary has gone from a weakness to what could be a strength, if they keep showing improvement at this rate. There are a lot of "if's" and it's still early but if we can step up again this week by holding Drew Brees below his average, I'll be convinced that our top 10 ranking is legit.