After the defensive travails of last season, Sean McDermott and the Panthers' Defense are looking to rebound. This season the Panthers will be returning multiple starters and depth players from injuries, including the likes of LB Jon Beason, DT Ron Edwards, and LB Thomas Davis. Not to mention, the Panthers added a cadre of players who are likely to make an impact in 2012, such as 1st round pick Luke Kuechly, S's Haruki Nakamura and Reggie Smith, as well as LB Kenny Onatalu, and 4th round pick DE Frank Alexander. In addition, the young players on the Panthers' Defensive Front will have hopefully matured and improved their craft after gaining invaluable experience last season. As such it's not a stretch to say that the Panthers' Defense will be improved from last season's product.
Second year coordinator Sean McDermott will be returning in 2012 with some help from HC Ron Rivera and recently hired Secondary Coach Steve Wilks. Last season McDermott was hamstrung by the various injuries sustained by valuable members of the Front 7, as well as the youth of the Panthers' Defense, and as such, McDermott was unable to operate his scheme; the Jim Johnson 43.
The Jim Johnson 4-3 Defense is a highly aggressive blitz-happy scheme that employs a blend of zone blitzes that are designed to befuddle the blockers and neutralize quick slants and hot routes that previously carved up blitzes during the 1980's. The Secondary is comprised of zone coverages that try to prevent big plays and mask the deficiencies of the whole secondary.
However, last season the depletion of the LB Corps and the relative weakness of the Defensive Line prevented McDermott from dialing up the zone blitzes, or even blitzes in general.
Per Football Outsiders, the Panthers' Defense last season rushed only the front four on 72.4% of downs. The Panthers primarily relied on their Defensive Line for their pass rush. And as we saw, the Defensive Line mainly failed to pressure the QB, accumulating 31.0 sacks last season (26th in the NFL), 83% of which were made by the Defensive Line.
In 2012 I believe that we'll see more zone blitzes in 2012 (5.0% of downs in 2011) and other blitzes (Rush 5: 15.9%; Rush 6+: 6%).
The Panthers now have the personnel to run more/effective zone blitzes and man blitzes. These blitzes will pressure opposing QB's into making errant throws and mistakes reading a coverage. This will ultimately help the secondary, and especially the young CB's; it's a lot easier to cover a WR for 4 seconds than it is for 7 seconds. Moreover, the threat of a capable blitz will distort a QB's pre-snap coverage reads: if the Defense lines up for a blitz, the QB and Center will have to adjust protection for the "blitz" taking away precious time for reading the coverage, and when the blitz doesn't arrive as expected, and the LB's drop back in a Cover 3 zone, the Defense will have the upper hand.
Furthermore, with the addition of Kuechly, in tangent with Beason, the Panthers have two bonafide Mike LB's, both capable of playing Will or Sam. And while neither have had extensive history blitzing, their co-existance will aid the mystery of the blitz's origin and power. Before every snap either the Center or the QB must read the defense for signs of blitz and/or coverage, the first part being identifying the Mike LB and his intention. And if the Panthers line up two players capable of playing Mike LB, it doesn't matter where they are located, they can hide the destination and target of their blitz. Say Brian La Puente reads Beason as the MLB and rolls protection towards him, while the actual Mike, Kuechly is allowed to blitz up the A gap and sack Drew Brees after a stunt by Beason.
One of the Sean McDermott's pitfalls with the Eagles was his predictability in regards to the blitz. Opponents were able to discern when the blitz was coming, and how to counter it, while exploiting the holes opened up by the blitz. This problem might be attributed to inexperience, in which case, Coaches Rivera and Wilks will be by his side to offer assistance as well as advice.
All in all, the Panthers Defense will be improved in 2012, however, the potency of the pass rush will likely determine how high the Panthers Defense will be able to climb in the hierarchy of NFL Defenses in 2012.