Three days ago we looked into the Jim Johnson 43 Defense, the defense of choice of Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott. Last season the Panthers' Defense was stricken by numerous injuries along the front seven, crippling the schemes that McDermott had hoped to run in 2011. However, with many key players returning from injury, coupled with more experienced defensive players, and a greater understanding of the defensive principles in a Jim Johnson 43, It is entirely possible that the Panthers may make a large improvement next season on the defensive side of the ball.
Next Season, The Panthers are expected to run a hybrid of the Jim Johnson 43 Defense. Looking back to Part I, The Jim Johnson defense relies on heavy pressure, and mismatches that arise from zone blitzes.
The Jim Johnson 43 Defense relies primarily on zone reads, with Zone Blitzes executed by the Front Seven, as well as Zone Coverage in the Secondary, in order to make up for the deficiencies of the group, or to roll coverage onto a studly WR or TE. It all starts up front, with the lanes opened up by the DLine, creating gaps for the LB's to blitz through, creating pressure which forces the QB to chuck an inaccurate ball unto which the Secondary makes a play, hopefully forcing a turnover. The different units of the Defense must work in unison, or else the effectiveness of each unit will become moot.
If you want to refresh yourself on any of the principles and points of the Jim Johnson 4-3 Defense, as well as the jargon associated with the X's and O's, take a look back at Part I.
Overview: Looking over the Panthers' Defensive Roster, one stark realization is evident: The Panthers Defense lacks talent. Only one Panther on the current defensive roster has ever made it to a Pro Bowl; Jon Beason. And while the Panthers have a few good players, such as Thomas Davis, Charles Johnson, James Anderson, and Chris Gamble, as well as a second tier of talent hosted by Charles Godfrey, Greg Hardy, Dan Connor, Darius Butler, and Ron Edwards; Players who can be counted on to do their jobs, but have their own limitations.
Currently, The Panthers Defense is going through a pseudo-rebuilding period. As of right now, the Panthers have the 2nd Youngest Defense in the NFL, With the average Panther Player being around 25.00 Years old. While this youth movement will more than likely provide benefits in the long run, the current inexperience of the defense provides a lot of room for error as we have seen over the past season. However, the relative youth of the Panthers Defense does not prohibit the Panthers from running the Jim Johnson 4-3 Defense.
The Panthers Defensive Line is inundated with 2nd and 3rd Year Players, highlighted by Sione Fua, Terrell McClain, Andre Neblett, Frank Kearse, and Jason Shirley, as well as the veteran presence of Ron Edwards, an 11 year veteran, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs. Lining up on the edges we have Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, and Thomas Keiser. In the Jim Johnson 43, the typical alignment is the traditional 1 Gap Alignment, with two 7/9 Techniques in the C Gaps, one 3 Technique lined up in the B Gap opposite the 1 Technique in the A Gap.
Poring over the Panthers roster as it is on Panthers.com, The Panthers have 8 Defensive Tackles under contract with the team: Ron Edwards, Sione Fua, Frank Kearse, Andre Neblett, Terrell McClain, Demario Pressley, Jason Shirley, and Ogemdi Nwagbro. Edwards, Fua, Kearse, and Shirley fit the prototypical size and strength of a 1 Technique Nose Tackles in the Jim Johnson 43, while Neblett, McClain, Pressley, and Nwagbro are all 3 Technique Under Tackles. A 1 Technique in the 4-3 needs to have great strength in order to command, as well as handle the double teams that a 1 Technique incurs. After watching the aforementioned players develop and battle through their respective tribulations, I believe that Fua, and Kearse have the build and strength necessary to play NT in the Jim Johnson 43, however, it might be better if they were to sit and watch for another season or two, before being thrust into extended playing time. In my opinion, Edwards (If he doesn't become a cap casualty) is a day one starter at 1 Technique, with Shirley receiving the primary backup snaps. Shirley's raw strength and girth, as well as his explosion off of the line of scrimmage make him a hard player to handle, naturally drawing a double team from the Center and Guard, opening up a gap for the Mike Linebacker.
As for the 3 Techniques, Pressley, Neblett, and McClain all possess the lateral speed, as well as the pass rushing skills necessary to play UT in the Jim Johnson Defense. However, all of the players need to have their techniques honed and polished, and with another offseason of instruction and practice, we may see leaps and bounds of improvement from the 3 Techniques as they progress. In my opinion, Neblett is the most ready to assume the starting duties for the Panthers in 2012. Neblett has the physical tools and the work ethic necessary to make an impact on the line, and in the Jim Johnson 43, Neblett may rack up superb numbers. One player I have my eye on come Training Camp in July is Demario Pressley. Pressley attended NC State, and entered College as one of the top ten recruits in the nation, a High School All American. Whilst a lack of production destined him as a 5th round pick, and little progress in his first few years in the NFL got him dropped by the Broncos and Saints, I think he has the explosion and burst necessary to succeed in the NFL.
Currently the Panthers have 4 Defensive Ends under contract (Not including Antwan Applewhite; a UFA). From a technical standpoint, Charles Johnson (6'2 275 lbs) and Greg Hardy (6'4 277 lbs) are fits for the 7 Technique in the Jim Johnson 43. Johnson is a sublime pass rusher, and his presence on the strongside of the basic 43 Under Alignment, while Greg Hardy's developmental pass rushing techniques places him more often not on the Weakside of the alignment. Johnson's repertoire of pass rushing moves makes him a versatile Defensive End capable of double digit Sacks, while Hardy's one go to pass rush move, limits him to a situational role on most teams. If Hardy continues to perfect his task, he will be able to increase his production. Thomas Keiser (6'3 261 lbs) and Jyles Tucker (6'3 258 lbs) are more than likely to be delegated to situational roles in which their size/speed combination as former OLB's in the 3-4 can overwhelm the offensive line in a zone blitz. As 9 Techniques, Keiser, and Tucker (as well as Applewhite) will rush the edge typically on the Weakside, attempting to contain the QB in the pocket, as well as limit sweep runs towards the sidelines. Keiser and Tucker both have the potential to pick up solid sack numbers in the Jim Johnson 43, as they will likely receive favorable match ups in a zone blitzing scheme, rather than taking on a Tackle one on one.
Potential Players that could excel in the Jim Johnson 43:
While The Panthers have a solid core building in the Defensive Line, a talent upgrade could be utilized on the Defensive Line, most specifically the Defensive Ends.
Fletcher Cox: 6'4 298 lbs. 1.63 10 yard split / Projected Round: 1st.
Cox has enough strength to push Guards back off of the line, as well as the speed to collapse the pocket. Cox could make an instant impact from Day 1.
Jaye Howard: 6'3 301 lbs. 1.72 10 yard split / Projected Round: 4-6
Howard is an athletic freak with potential, potential that hasn't been turned into production yet. A good pass rusher from the 3 Technique, but has the ability to play other positions on the line.
Quinton Coples: 6'6 281 lbs. 1.63 10 yard split / Projected Round: 1st
Coples is an athletic beast, with the speed to blow past a Tackle, the power to bull rush an opposing Tackle or guard, Coples is as elite a pass rusher as can be found. Coples is a prototypical 3 Down 7 Technique, and is great in defense of the run.
Melvin Ingram: 6'2 276 lbs. 1.72 10 yard split / Projected Round: 1st
Ingram's combination of raw strength and speed that allows him to beat Tackles with ease. Ingram's athleticism allows him to contain the rush as well as rush inside on a stunted blitz.
Cam Johnson: 6'3 267 lbs. N/A 10 yard split / Projected Round: 2nd
Johnson is a very solid DE that is well rounded in both pass rush, and run defense. Good first step, and solid speed/size combo.
Last season the Panthers' Linebacking corps was hit the hardest by injuries, losing the heart and soul of the defense, as well as numerous replacements. Continuity is definitely a concern at LB, and finding and retaining depth at LB should be a priority for the Front Office. As of right now, the Panthers have a plethora of Linebackers. Starring Mike Linebacker Jon Beason, Sam Linebacker James Anderson, and Will Linebacker Thomas Davis, the Panthers Linebackers are salty vets with plenty of talent. At Will LB, TD fits the mold, capable running in the flat, and matching pace with a TE, whilst being able to supervise the gap discipline of the Front Seven. If his health is able to hold up, TD could put up career numbers in 2012. At Mike Linebacker, Beason should be a force. Blitzing on the fly, and dropping into zone coverage in the middle of the field against opposing TE's. More than likely, Beason will reach a career high in sack numbers in the Jim Johnson 43 with space eating DT's eating up blockers on zone blitzes, opening up gaps for the Mike LB to shoot through. The ever consistent James Anderson will be holding the torch at Sam LB. At Sam LB Anderson will contain runs on the Strongside, as well as blitz intermittently in order to keep the offense guessing where the blitz comes from. Anderson will likely keep his gaudy stats high while patrolling the strongside.
The Panthers have a horde of backups at the three LB positions. At Will Linebacker the Panthers have Jordan Senn, Jason Phillips, Kion Wilson, and Omar Gaither. Jordan Senn played a big role last season with the relative deprivation of the LB corps, I think that he will spell TD in order to keep Davis fresh for the entire season. Also a Will Linebacker, Omar Gaither has multiple years of experience in the Jim Johnson 43, and documented success in the system under Sean McDermott, Gaither has good instincts, and is athletic enough to where he can run with a RB in the flat, however, Gaither is a FA, and will need to be signed. At Sam LB, The Panthers also have Phillip Dillard, and Jason Williams at Sam Linebacker. Dillard has nice measurables, and Williams has proven himself capable of handling a game or two starting at various positions in the LB Corps briefly during 2011; However, I wouldn't want to have rely on either of those guys for an extended period of time. Moreover, The depth at Mike Linebacker is weak at best. With the projected loss of Dan Connor via Free Agency, Thomas Williams, known for his big hits during the preseason, will be the only reserve to Jon Beason come July. Williams is suitable for quick instances of play, however, he doesn't project well as the long term back up for Jon Beason. Williams' speed and force will make him a force in the middle, and a good pass rusher, while providing somewhat of a liability in coverage.
Potential LB's that could excel in the Jim Johnson 43:
The Panthers could use an infusion of young talent into the LB Corps. With the shakiness of TD's health, as well as the lack of depth at MLB, The Panthers might look to add an appropriate backup for Beason. These LB's have to be quick, adept at rushing the passer, and be able to shed blocks.
Ronnell Lewis: 6'2 244 lbs, 4.55 40 yard dash / Projected Round: 2nd
Lewis was a standout at multiple positions for the Sooners throughout his career in Norman. A sublime pass rusher, In my opinion, Lewis could be a solid Sam Linebacker at the next level. Lewis' speed and instincts could make him a quality Linebacker at the next level.
Sean Spence: 5'11 228 lbs, 4.49 40 yard dash / Projected Round: 2-4
Spence has a nose for the ball, and was a consistent playmaker for the Canes during his career at Miami. Spence's good instincts, and small stature make him a candidate for Will Linebacker. With a sub 4.5 40, Spence has the speed to match any RB or TE in coverage.
Vontaze Burfict: 6'1 248 lbs, 4.93 40 yard dash / Projected Round: 2-7
Burfict had a mediocre combine to cap off a mediocre season for the Sun Devils this year, leaving some speculation as to his draft position. However, Burfict is a thumper in the middle, possessing good size for a Mike Linebacker, and providing a great presence in the pass rush. Their remains a lot of question marks surrounding Burfict.
Erin Henderson: 6'3 244 lbs, Free Agent OLB from Minnesota
Henderson is 25 years old, coming off of his rookie contract with the Vikes. Henderson has experience playing SLB and WLB, and could be a valuable addition via FA.
The Panthers' Secondary remained relatively healthy throughout the 2011 season, only dealing with minor injuries throughout the campaign. The Panthers Secondary is led by Chris Gamble, the Pro Bowl Caliber CB. Gamble is a non factor in the Jim Johnson 43; Panther Fans can assume that Gamble will continue to lockdown his opponent every weekend. However the rest of the Secondary is a bit of an enigma. Behind Gamble, there isn't much talent; Captain Munnerlyn is capable of keeping opposing slot receivers in check as a nickel back, however, we don't know how he would stand up in prolonged zone coverage against an opponent's third receiver. After Munnerlyn the Panthers have Darius Butler who assumed the #2 CB duties late in the year. Butler was tolerable, however, while watching him intently, I noticed that he doesn't get his head turned in sequence with his opponents, thus allowing a few unnecessary catches. Afterwards, The CB situation becomes murky, with RJ Stanford and Josh Thomas assuming mainly special teams roles. The X Factor of the Panthers Secondary has to be Brandon Hogan, 2nd Year Player out of West Virginia. Hogan saw limited action last season, after overcoming a persisting injury. Hogan looked solid while in the game, and he exhibited knowledge of zone concepts. If the Secondary retains its current arrangement, Hogan may challenge for a starting role in 2012.
At Safety the Panthers have the less than desirable tandem of Sherrod Martin and Charles Godfrey. Martin was tolerable in coverage during the 2011 Season, yet in run support, Martin was useless, often surrendering huge gains in the run game, after attempting an arm tackle from a horrid angle. The fact remains, Run Support is an important job for a Free Safety in the Jim Johnson 43. If Martin reprises his starting role in 2012 (there will be blood) he will continue to play deep zone coverage safeguarding centerfield from WR's and TE's (but not RB's). Over at the Strong Safety spot Charles Godfrey will be charged with watching WR's on his side of the field. Also, Godfrey will be asked to blitz occasionally, a role we haven't seen from Godfrey in recent years. We may say more safety blitzes as a part of zone blitzes in order to dial up pressure, Martin would slide over into robber coverage, and the Will LB, TD, will drop back into coverage.
Potential CB's/S's that could excel in the Jim Johnson 43:
In my opinion, the Secondary is the most talent depraved positional group on the Panthers, and multiple moves could be made to upgrade the malefic nature of the secondary. The Panthers will be looking at Corners who are quick, possess good Football IQ's, and are good at playing the ball in the air; The Safeties will be players with experience in a zone defense, with good tackling mechanics, and ball hawking abilities.
Janoris Jenkins: 5'10 193 lbs, 4.44 40 yard dash / Projected Round: 1
Jenkins may be the most talented pure cover corner in the Draft. Jenkins has experience playing in the zone as well as man to man. Jenkins is very feisty and plays with a chip on his shoulder, often playing physical with bigger WR's, outmuscling them for position.
Dre Kirkpatrick: 6'2 186 lbs, 4.46 40 yard dash / Projected Round: 1st
Dre is a physical corner with good size and solid tackling mechanics when helping out in run support. Rarely being tested in 2011, Kirkpatrick shut down Rueben Randle in their two match ups this season.
Mark Barron: 6'1 213 lbs, 4.61 40 yard dash / Projected Round: 1st
Barron had a strong career in Tuscaloosa, a solid safety capable of making big hits, as well as wrap up tackles. Barron could start from Day 1 at Strong Safety, pushing Godfrey over to FS.
Chase Minnifield: 5'10 183 lbs, 4.46 40 yard dash / Projected Round: 2nd
Minnifield has extensive experience in zone coverage, having spent his college career playing almost exclusively in zone coverage. Minnifield plays physically against opposing WR's.
With a full slate of mini camps, OTA's, and Training Camp this offseason the Panthers players will be well versed in the Jim Johnson 43 Defense by the start of the season. The implementation of the Jim Johnson 4-3 Defense will coincide with an increase of blitzes, as well as the increased precision and effect on the QB. The escalation of blitzes will likely incur a rash of turnovers, hopefully giving Cam and the offense even more chances to put points on the board.
Revisiting the conclusion reached at the beginning of Part II, the Panthers Defense does require talent upgrades at multiple positions in order to become a fearsome contingent, yet The Panthers Defense has the nucleus necessary to execute the Jim Johnson 43 with an expectation of mild success in Year 1. Simply by returning a legion of players from injured reserve, as well as another offseason of enrichment for the youngsters, the 2012 Panthers Defense is going to be much improved over the 2011 Panthers Defense.