If there is one conclusion that all Panther Fans can agree on, it would be that the defense needs to be improved if the Panthers hope to make a playoff run in 2012. The Panthers Defense suffered a series of unfortunate events, losing both defensive leaders and depth to the injury bug in 2011. Because of the injury situation, and the relative youth and inexperience found on the Defense, the Panthers' Defense struggled mightily last season. Possibly the quickest way to improve the Panthers Defense would be an increased pass rush.
Last season the Panthers generated very little pressure on the pocket, accruing 31 Sacks, or about 2 times per game, good enough for 25th in the NFL. The pass rush was culpable for much of the defensive woes last season, as many times, opposing Quarterbacks were allowed to sit back in the pocket and comfortably pick apart our meager secondary. Mediocre QB's such as Christian Ponder, Curtis Painter, TJ Yates, and Kevin Kolb all found their stroke against the Panthers, and put up decent numbers against our maligned defense.
The NFL is a copycat league, and often times, a recipe for success can be found in your competitors strategy. For example, looking at the Denver Broncos, who executed a defensive turnaround that would propel them into the playoffs. Via the 2011 Draft, the Broncos selected Von Miller with the #2 Overall pick, with the intention to solidify their pass rush, in addition, Elvis Dumervil returned from an injury sustained in training camp the prior offseason. This duo would establish a splendid pass rush, which in turn sparked a substantial defensive turnaround in 2011. Miller would record 11.5 Sacks in 2011, while Dumervil would record 9.5 Sacks. This renewed focus on the pass rush would net the Broncos on average 5 less points surrendered per game, along with a 5% increase in 3rd Down stops and almost an entire yard less per play.
Another defensive transformation occurred in San Francisco, where the 49'ers addressed their pass rush with the selection of Aldon Smith with the 8th overall pick. The Niners would improve from 17th in points allowed per game (21.6 ppg) to 2nd in the NFL with (14.3 ppg). Aldon Smith would put on a clinic amassing 14.0 Sacks, and a rejuvenated Justin Smith would add another 7.5 Sacks; The 49ers would total 42 Sacks total on the 2011 Season.
It's also not coincidental that the teams with the top four fewest points allowed were teams with vicious pass rushes (The Steelers, Niners, Ravens, and Texans), the same goes for the 2010 season (The Steelers, Packers, Ravens, Bears, and Falcons). Nor is it coincidental that the teams with the highest third down stop percentages were teams that base their defenses with a strong pass rush: The Cardinals (Dockett, and Campbell), The Ravens (Suggs, Ngata, and Lewis), and the Lions (Suh, Avril, Vanden Bosch, etc...).
A potent pass rush is capable of masking many defensive flaws. Foremost, a solid pass rush forces the QB to release the ball quicker with a lack of precision that allows the Secondary to make plays on the ball, increasing the amount of turnovers procured. In addition, a formidable pass rush allows a Defensive Coordinator to drop more defenders into coverage, closing off windows of opportunity for an opposing offense.
Moreover, a powerful pass rush can also help out the run game. With the defense lining up in a base set, more players can be dedicated to the hinderance of an opponents running game. Furthermore, with a better pass rush, the Defense wouldn't need to blitz as often, or with as much force, making it easier for a Defensive Coordinator to mask his play calls, and blitz packages.
The Panthers' Front Office would be wise to increase the vigor of the Panthers' Pass Rush heading into the 2012 Season. Perusing the roster as it is now, the Panthers already have the pieces in place to produce a fearsome pass rush. Charles Johnson is a legit pass rusher in his own right, and Greg Hardy provides a solid rush off of the bench, and may or may not have the mettle to be a 3 Down Defensive End. Applewhite, Keiser, and Tucker provide solid depth off of the bench. Adding an elite prospect to the DE corps, or signing a proven pass rusher on the Free Agent Market could improve the Panthers' Pass Rush enough to the point where the defense is capable of wreaking havoc on opposing QB's.
Possible targets for the Panthers could include, Mario Williams, John Abraham, and Jeremy Mincey in the Free Agency Market or, Quinton Coples, Melvin Ingram, Whitney Mercilus, Courtney Upshaw, and Vinny Curry via the Draft. Sound off, CSR community, Which of these fellows would you like the Panthers to target and why?