Defensive Break Downs: What Happened in 2011?

There really just is no way to sugar coat this at all. Last year, our defense was utterly abysmal. We may have had 18 guys on IR (a franchise record), but even with such extensive injuries, there is no standard by which we can say the Panthers "looked good" last year on this side of the ball.

That's not to say there weren't bright spots (Chris Gamble, for example), but there were far too many dark ones. As in, black hole darkness. We'll take a quick look into that after the jump...

Update: Stumbled across one last piece of really great info that pretty much backs up my final conclusion. Want to see what it was? Check it out!

The Play Action Pass Freebies

So, you're an offensive coordinator. The Panthers have managed to put up a decent set of stops and you're looking at a 3rd and 8 or worse. What are you going to do? Well, sadly, you'll probably take a leaf out of Fox's book and run the dreaded play action pass on third and long. Why? Well, unfortunately Panthers Faithful, we were dead last in defending such plays, and the margin is not even close.

2011 Play Action Pass Statistics, Defenses (courtesy of Football Outsiders)
Defense PA% Yds/Play w/PA DVOA w/ PA Yds/Pass w/ PA
(actual passes)
(actual Passes
CAR 26% 9.2 50.9% 9.2 49.6% 7.2 9.1%
IND 24% 6.9 4.7% 7.0 4.1% 6.9 23.5%
CLE 22% 6.7 19.2% 6.9 17.5% 5.9 0.8%
STL 22% 7.5 9.4% 7.8 9.1% 6.2 3.6%
SEA 22% 6.0 -26.0% 6.1 -29.0% 6.3 4.2%
CHI 21% 6.7 -5.5% 6.6 -7.5% 6.1 -5.5%
NFL Avg. 19.5% 7.5 13.3% 7.6 12.2% 6.2 3.5%

So what does all this mean? For those unfamilar with Football Outsiders, they have created their own special metric for evaluation called the DVOA, which is basically a rating of plays with a special adjustment (feel free to check out more about DVOA here). Here's a very brief synopsis:

The majority of the ratings featured on are based on DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. DVOA breaks down every single play of the NFL season to see how much success offensive players achieved in each specific situation compared to the league average in that situation, adjusted for the strength of the opponent.

Basically, for defenses the lower the number, the better. Generally a decent defensive effort is represented by 10.0% DVOA or lower.

Now, there are three things that should really pop out right off the bat. First of all, this table is ranked by the percentage of play action passes we saw in comparison to other plays and the 26% for the Carolina defense is the largest of any team in the league. Secondly, we gave up an average of 9.2 yards per play action play. Coupled with that astronomical number is our league-worst 49.6% DVOA. For a point of reference, the best team in DVOA is also on this list. Seattle had an excellent play action defensive showing with a whopping -29.0% DVOA and giving up on average only 6.1 yards per play, both are league bests. Not only were we the worst in the league at defending the play action pass, but everyone knew what our weaknesses was and they hit it hard, targeting our defense 26% of the time with play action compared to the average of 19% for the rest of the league.

But think about the purpose of the play action play. As James discussed in his piece on our offense, the whole purpose of these plays is to freeze the linebackers. With the multitude of injuries to our linebacker corp, we obviously weren't fielding the most experienced group and with River acknowledging communication issues, it's easy to understand why this was a problem. And even more than that there is reason to believe this will improve dramatically. While the return of Beason is going to be tremendous, it is the skills of Luke Keuchly that I am really excited about. He is great in coverage and supposedly possesses great instincts. Those two abilities should prove invaluable.

And speaking of coverage...

TEs: Back Breakers

Surprise! The Panthers finished last against tight ends... Again. Referencing Football Outsiders again, the Panthers gave up 6.2 yards per pass to Tight Ends giving up 62.9 yards per game for a worst-ranked DVOA of 40.2%. Remember, these are numbers you want to be in the negatives... Looking around our division though, it's not surprising that we might struggle in this area. Again, a depleted linebacker corps is part of the reason to blame, but also our division is pretty stacked at the position. Tony Gonzales and Jimmy Graham are two of the top tight ends in the league and Kellen Winslow wasn't that bad the year before, though the Bucs fell off the map last year...

And again, there is reason to be hopeful and really for the same reasons. Beason and Keuchly should help solidify our defense, adding steel to one of our weakest links of last year... and the year before. Improved safety play could also pay dividends here if the LBs miss a tackle, which did happen more than once last year, sadly.

Pulling It Together

A lot of attention over the offseason has been on our defensive line. But truly, some of the most back breaking slip ups have come in our linebacker corps's inability to produce a stop. Giving up 6+ yards to tight ends and 9+ yards on play action passes helps other teams keep their drives going. Perhaps that is why the Panthers were also near the bottom of the league in 3rd down conversions last year. Out of the 194 3rd downs we faced, we gave up over 40%! (83 for 42.8%).

The inability to get of the field truly crippled us all season long. It magnified the mistakes made by the offense (Cam's turnovers, for instance) and reduced the effectiveness of our potent scoring capabilities. While the defensive line shoulders some of this burden, clearly the linebackers were fairing no better as a lot of these statics come from their main defensive responsibilities. In short, it becomes obvious why Kuechly was drafted and even more so how important it is to get Jon Beason back on the field.

And you know what? Football Outsiders also agrees again. In a piece they wrote back in May, they took a detailed look at how teams responded due to injurires sustained. Here's what they had to say:

Finally, the Panthers had the highest defensive AGL in 2011. Theirs was also the second-highest since 2002: only the 2009 Buffalo Bills were more injured (62.1). Coupled with Carolina's 29th place finish in offensive AGL, it makes you wonder how big of a win improvement they could have enjoyed if not for bad injury luck.

Injuries truly ended up crippling our defense throughout the season. Think about the number of starters we lost alone. Beaosn, Davis, Edwards all on defense went down, followed by their eventual back ups as well. Could we have seen a winning season last year if it had not been for such a terrible injury bug?

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