Hindsight aside, last year's offensive growth was uncanny. Cam Newton and Rob Chudzinski paired to drive one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. While Cam was the catalyst, his arrival in Carolina and the ensuing offensive success had more to do with his ability as a quarterback to open up the Panthers' passing game; rejuvenating Steve Smith's career, and showing fans what it's like to see a true pass-catching tight end. The defense can't boast the same single motivating factor. In reality, more arguments can be made for why the defense should be weaker in 2012. Between the loss of Jon Beason early, to Chris Gamble being placed on IR, followed by a comedic lack of defensive tackle depth -- this Panthers' defense should be the worst unit we've seen, and yet they're thriving. Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott have paired to nurture this rag-tag group into one of the best defense's in the league, and the stats show it.
Allowing 325.9 yards in the modern NFL is an impressive feat, and why the Carolina Panthers are currently ranked eighth in the league in yards allowed per game. This is more than a case of the offense staying on the field, as some have postulated. The secondary are allowing 6.8 yards per attempt (10th in the league). Carolina's run defense is still struggling, allowing 4.3 yards per carry, slotting them in at 19th -- however, with the lack of talent at defensive tackle it's remarkable they have been able to improve since 2011.
There are two key differences in the Panthers' defense from 2011 to 2012. The first is the arrival of Luke Kuechly in Carolina. When the Panthers made the decision to take a middle linebacker with the ninth overall pick, reaction ranged from excitement, to anger, but the majority of fans were just confused; why take an elite MLB when you already have one, especially given the other holes on defense? A salient question, but one answered by Jon Beason's injury. Whether the coaching staff had foresight into Beason's condition, or whether they just believed in Kuechly is irrelevant -- the result, and the NFL's leading tackler are what have made the difference.
The second factor is the 'arrival' of Greg Hardy. A talented pass rusher, Hardy's first two seasons did not foreshadow a complete defensive end. Strong on third down with a singular goal, he was a player who often looked lost when he needed to stop the run on the edge, or control gaps. This resulted in a 2010 and 2011 season that showed extremely promising pass rush numbers for Hardy, but placed him as one of the league's worst in run stopping. There's no mystery that Ron Rivera has taken to the young defensive end, and tried to harness that immense potential. Now that work is paying off. Third in the league in sacks among 4-3 defensive ends, Hardy's ability to get to the quarterback is stellar, but more impressive has been his ability to stop edge runners. According to Football Outsiders, runs at Hardy's position average 3.81 yards -- 14th in the NFL. This is a mammoth improvement from the 5.62 yards allowed at the position last year, worst in the league. Greg Hardy has been everything Panthers fans hoped he could be, and is the reason Carolina now have one of the best pass rush tandems in the NFL.
With a defensive DVOA of -4.2%, the Carolina Panthers are now the 10th ranked defense in the NFL. It remains to be seen what will happen with the coaching staff, but it now appears that drafting, and building through coaching is paying off. Carolina's middle linebacker spot is solidified, the pass rush is working, and the defense are only a defensive tackle or two (and a safety) away from being a dominant defensive team.