The NFL has taken great measures to protect the quarterback in recent years in the interest of slinging the ball and running up scores. However, putting good, clean hits on the quarterback could be considered the antidote for the wide-open game the NFL has become. It is a way to stop offenses from posting up a converted Power Forward in the middle of the field while sending two guys who can't be touched after five yards down the sidelines en route to a six-touchdown offensive explosion that gives the folks at ESPN plenty of highlights that are palatable to casual fans, who tend not to have the stomach for the sounds of crunching bones or seeing the number one jersey-seller on their favorite roster carted off the field.
Being able to bring pressure and collapse the pocket could literally mean the difference between, say, stopping a drive on your side of the field or giving up a third and seven that sustains a drive into the end zone. You don't have to do it every time, but you when you need that ace you need to be able to pull it. Last year, the Panthers too often seemed incapable of pulling an ace, unfortunately, and too often left undersized or inexperienced defensive backs on islands to cover for five or more seconds, and the results showed in the win-loss column. The results show in the fanbase's general malaise toward Safety Sherrod Martin perhaps more than anything, but any fair-minded individual will understand that while his tackling was unforgivably poor (he couldn't wrap up one of my daughter's teddy bears if she asked him to tuck her in) - he was also asked to save the day WAY TOO MUCH. (more after the jump)
Quarterbacks too often were allowed to sit-back and diagnose our zone coverages or identify mismatches, glance up at the scoreboard, calculate how many yards they needed for a touchdown, glance up into the boxes and check on their wives and children, make sure their shoes were tied THEN hit their man for a big gain. In the second half of the season finale, it was like Drew Brees was trying to figure out who he had to hit to break what record, bead in on that guy and stand there until he worked his way open. We lost that game.
The team managed a paltry total of 31 sacks last year. That's good for 25th in the league, but not good for a Jim Johnson-inspired defense. Defensive End Charles Johnson was the team leader with 9 sacks - down from his 12 the year before in his breakout, contract-year performance in 2010. This is a respectable number, but no one else on the roster was able to muster more than 4 (both defensive ends Thomas Keiser and Greg Hardy were able to reach this number). Johnson is also credited with a team-leading 27 quarterback pressures, and Hardy with another 17 from the other side. However, Jared Allen had nearly as many sacks as Johnson had pressures. While that didn't help his team into the playoffs, no one would argue it hurt their chances to get there.
Sack totals don't tell the whole story. It's a bit like gaging quarterback performance by passing touchdowns alone. However, a sack is what happens when rushing the passer is done right and our numbers (for lack of a more sophisticated description) sucked. For comparison's sake, opposing teams were able to corral Cam Newton (the elusive, athletic, big and strong SuperCam you and I watch gleefully every Sunday) 39 times. Sacking him once is no small feat.
Even more troubling, the sack totals drastically dropped off after halftime. Throughout the season, the team tallied 21 first half sacks, when the team was keeping it close or even holding a lead the vast majority of the time. However, when the second half rolled around and opposing offenses adjusted their protections and plans of attack - the team managed a mere 10 sacks.
The Panthers also got just as many sacks on first down (10) as they did on third down (11). This is antithetical to drive-killing poundings of the quarterbacks, because they get more downs to recover. The inability to get your third down, get them off-the-field quarterback hit and sack were the one element, aside from plays on the ball in the secondary, that made Carolina a bottom of the league defense and a sub-.500 team more than anything else. To drive the point home further, we had 19 sacks when we were winning, and only 12 when tied or trailing. That gives you an idea of the flow of the game.
There were a plethora of legitimate reasons why the defense was generally incapable of generating and sustaining a formidable pass rush, particularly on third-and-long. Injuries were to blame, certainly. Free agent acquisition Ron Edwards was expected to fill the void that has been the Panthers Defensive Tackle position for sometime now, while bringing along a couple of third round picks who showed promise but weren't necessarily ready for primetime. That was before he went down the first day of training camp, was lost for the entire season, and shoved rookies SIone Fua and Terrell McClain into starting jobs no one hoped they'd inherit that soon. Before the season even started, our "Kracken" Defensive End Greg Hardy (a former sixth round pick who'd emerged on theleft side of the d-line the year before) suffered a motorcycle crash which clearly hampered his ability to get to the quarterback the entire season.
In Weeks 1 and 2, respectively, the team's two most viable rush linebackers- Jon Beason and Thomas Davis - went down with leg injuries, in turn thrusting other lesser-skilled and experienced linebackers into the crucible, with predictable results and so many injuries down the depth chart it's not expedient to go into it any farther for the purposes of this conversation. I will, however, note that Omar Gaither never appeared to be healthy to me, which could have alleviated some of our woes on the weakside.
Aside from thrusting unproven players into increased roles, the injuries also forced our proven players to increase their responsibilities and play different roles. For example, our sack-leader Charles Johnson was forced to move to the inside at times, to stand up and play rush linebacker at others, and I even recall a couple of plays when he dropped back and looked surprisingly adept in coverage. Hardy was also moved inside often, and James Anderson was forced to step into the "Quarterback of the Defense" role, calling out plays and making pre-snap adjustments.
The injuries also, however, allowed the team to explore different options in different spots, and bring in a couple of players who can contend to be long-time contributors. Defensive End Thomas Keiser, End/Linebacker Antwon Applewhite and defensive tackles Andre Neblett and Jason Shirley may have remained in obscurity at the end of the bench had our big guns not been laid down so early on in the season. Shirley, in particular, proved a godsend to the pass rush in a limited late season role, when he was able to collect 2.5 thrashings of the quarterback.
Perhaps just as important in my mind was the schematic difference of philosophy - I like to think of it as a dissociative divide - between the Ron Meeks, Tampa 2-inspired secondary we ran and the aggressive, exotic blitz scheme Head Coach Ron Rivera and Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott brought with them to Charlotte in the front seven. On an even deeper, the defense could be thought of as kind of schizophrenic this year, switching its fronts, running around frantically putting out fires all over the field and, above all, giving up far too much yardage in the run and the pass. This is to be expected in the first year of a new program, especially when it's hit so hard with the injury bug in that fledgling, infantile state.
That was last year, though, and next year that will not be a luxury we have or want.The problem has to be fixed, and it will, I believe. My only question is how. Here are several options. Some or all could be deployed to help us stop the opposing team's motor (by this metaphor, I mean their quarterback):
1) Free Agency signings: We know that our current cap situation would be prohibitive to making any significant additions to the defense by whipping out the checkbook once the new league year starts. However, when I've listened to team officials discuss their strategies to improve the team going into next year, ALL of them have mentioned free agency as an avenue that will be utilized to the fullest extent possible, and I am confident that a move-here and a move-there in the front office's grand scheme before March 18 will position us to bring in a couple of bodies into the defensive fold.
These acquisitions may not be as eye-popping or rosterbation-inducing as signing Mario Williams and LaRon Landry, but I expect the team to get at least one viable contributor in the front seven and another in the secondary. How, who or when? I honestly don't know. I just know the why. The why makes it a must.
In my eyes, if Edwards isn't back, we'd have to get a veteran defensive tackle to add to the mix on the line. Too much youth in that very important area of the field. Smart money could also be on bringing in a veteran linebacker to man the weakside when TD isn't set up. We need an insurace policy on him. In the backfield, I'm of the opinion it would be ideal to bring in a strong safety who will play more the sneaking into the box role and sliding Charles Godfrey to the free safety to chase down those back-end free-runners that maimed us so last year. I think he can handle that, and we could use a little muscle in the middle. That's just me, though, and I don't portend to speak for the Panthers franchise.
2) The Draft: The draft we know is coming, and we know we will participate in it. I'm all for Best Player Available, either side of the ball, in the first round. That said, I think we're going to specialize a little with those later picks (that we hopefully haven't finished collecting) and look for specific roles that play to our system. The majority of our draft picks have to address the holes on defense, and that's no secret.
In my mind, should we go o-tackle in the first, as I am starting to believe is more and more likely, one could very well see our second, fourth and fifth round picks likely going toward fortifying our stoppers. A young combo guy who can, with more-or-less equal success, stick his hand in the dirt or stand up and make a mad dash around the edge of the pocket on the way to the quarterback seems to be an absolute must have in the draft to bolster our pass rush through the draft. Cornerback should also be addressed with the utmost priority, but tthat ain't gonna add to our sack totals.
3) Natural Progression: To a certain degree, regardless if we don't pick anything up on the market or bring in any pieces that pan out next year through the draft - the argument could still be made that our pass rush should be MUCH better this season after the staff has had a year to install its system, find the right positional coaches and coordinators to institute the system and one has to imagine we'll get a little luckier next year at keeping guys on the field to contribute. This also allows the Big Moneys of the world to do what they do best. What we need them to do.
4) Increased Usage of "Hybrid" Looks: I've taken some heat on here before for outlining my vision for the defense, where ends could stand up and rush from the outside on passing down looks, or move inside to make way for an extra linebacker to make his way into the game and rush the quarterback. I see us being able to use increased 3-4 looks to help disguise pressures, and basically fool the quarterback into staying there until we get to him. I don't think I have to explain how valuable unpredictability is in getting to the quarterback, and switching up our looks in the front seven, as well as adding a strong safety piece that could be better utilized in the blitz package, is an excellent way to confuse a Wonderlic Wonder genius qb.