At this point there should be little mystery that Ron Rivera is concerned about the Carolina Panthers pass rush this year. Fans can talk about elite offenses, hanging thirty, and Cam Newton until the cows come home, but unless the defense manages to put the opposing QB under durress they have some serious problems.
With the exception of one play Saturday night, Matt Schaub might as well have been back in Houston working in a 7-on-7 drill. The Texans were retooling their offensive line after losing Eric Winston, one of the best right tackles in the NFL, and yet the Panthers still failed to make Schaub's life uncomfortable. Sadly, this continued for much of the game with only Thomas Kesier and Antwan Applewhite being able to make an impact.
The performance was worrisome from a variety of angles, but it becomes quite deflating when you look around the league over the past few years. It's all well and good to look at a team like New England in 2011 and say "they won with an elite offense, and almost no defense, Carolina will be okay if all else fails". What isn't being taken into account is that for all the Patriots' failings defensively last year, they still managed to total 40 sacks, and had two 10 sack pass rushers, the Panthers had 31.
As a metric, sacks are not the be all and end all, but they are representative of a defense's ability not only to generate pressure, but get results. Touchdowns are the lifeblood of an offense, but sacks are almost as important to a defense. A defensive front who generate pressures but not sacks might as well be a 400 yard offense who can't score in the red zone. Pressures are nice, but they don't cause havoc. There is an established history of QBs playing through pressure, but only a few can continue to play at a high level if they've been sacked multiple times.
More after the jump
In watching film on the 2011 Panthers what was most concerning about their pass rush was a lack of effectiveness on 1st and 2nd down. The majority of their team sacks (at least 20 by my count) came on third down in obvious passing situations. Why is this so important? In short: Because third down sacks are the easiest way to inflate a pass rush's numbers. It's a scenario where quarterbacks are willing to hold on the ball longer than normal, become more desperate to make something happen, and move around the pocket more than they are typically. By nature this creates a situation where pressures and sacks are easier to come by, especially when teams are utilizing more receivers than blockers; which we typically see on third down.
The Carolina Panthers must generate 1st and 2nd down pressure to help derail an offensive series, but from where? There is a commonly held belief that with Ron Edwards back in the middle, and another year of seasoning at the DT position that there would be more opportunities for the pass rushers to be single blocked; naturally generating pressure. However, on Saturday night we never saw it.
Charles Johnson managed to get just one pressure, Greg Hardy was stonewalled all night, and rookie Frank Alexander used none of his length to benefit as a pass rusher, something that was pointed out by our friend Josh Norris of Rotoworld. What's most alarming is that the Panthers second most effective pass rusher over the last year, Thomas Keiser is strictly a third down option, which furthers Carolina from their goal of generating early pass rush.
Herein lies the problem for Carolina: Hardy is a great pass rusher, but has issues sealing the edge. Keiser has a knack for the backfield, but isn't a three down lineman. Alexander is too raw, and unprepared to be a starter. Other than Charles Johnson the Panthers don't have a complete DE to work for three downs, and that's an issue. The pass rush of the early 2000's was based on Peppers and Rucker, two complete linemen– and now the Panthers have neither.
In order for the situation to be rectified Sean McDermott will need to blitz creatively with his linebackers and secondary, but even then it's unclear which of the Panthers LBs have pass rush ability. Kuechly is learning, but has never been a serious pass rush threat, neither has Jon Beason. It's unrealistic to expect the LBs to generate 1st and 2nd down pressure, especially when they need to make up for DT deficiencies in the run game.
It's going to take time folks. Either players will need to develop, or the Panthers will need to invest more draft picks into the position. Both options take time, and the fanbase is impatient. If the defense can come out and generate pressure vs. Miami a lot of these concerns will be satiated, but it's not realistic to think the pass rush will be elite with the current personnel in 2012.