The focus for much of the season has been on Mike Shula, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers offense, but it's the team's defense that has allowed close games to be decided by a lack of execution.
Carolina is allowing just 13.6 points per game, a number good enough to slot in behind the Kansas City Chiefs for second in the NFL -- but there are questions whether the ranking truly indicative of the team's ability, or a fortunate byproduct of convincingly beating two very poor teams.
In their two wins the defense has allowed just 10 total points against the interception-prone Giants and Vikings, while giving up 58 in the team's three losses. It's easy to overlook the performances as good defenses beating up bad teams, but Carolina hasn't faced terrible offenses in 2013. Across the five games the Panthers have faced an offense with an average scoring ranking of 18th, scoring 21.9 points per game. This includes the defense's dominance, and still shows that teams are averaging over a touchdown less against Sean McDermott's unit.
A common pattern under Ron Rivera has been an inability to get the two phases of the game in step. In 2011 the offense was let down by a porous defense, in 2012 the Panthers allowed less points but couldn't score -- now it seems history is repeating. Despite allowing 13.6 points the offense is only barely out-scoring the defense, averaging 21.8 points, good for 19th in the NFL.
This number doesn't seem bad on the surface, but when 73 of 109 points came in two blowout games we're left with a three-game average of just 12.0 points in losses.
There's the story for 2013 in a nutshell. A defense that can allow just 13.6 points and an offense that can score just 12.0 unless they're facing a one-win team. There is a silver lining, however -- as we've seen a big uptick in yards through the air, improving to 27th after sitting at 31st after two games. This paired with risk taking on down and distance should naturally result in more points.
Carolina's defensive front is very talented, and the reason why teams have struggled to move the ball in 2013 -- but it's curious to note that Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy aren't having a huge statistical impact. Neither has been good at finishing plays this year, generating pressure but leading the Panthers to a 19th ranked sack defense.
This number shouldn't be discouraging. Yes, the defense isn't putting the quarterback on the ground as much as they should, but hurried throws have proven to be as beneficial as impressive hits. Kansas City leads the NFL in sacks, averaging over five per game -- but still only allow under a field goal less in points. It doesn't matter how it's getting done, it's that we're seeing the end result.
Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams will be fascinating from a defensive standpoint. The team's offense is currently 15th in the league, scoring over 23 points per game. There has been just one game where Sam Bradford's offense was held to single digits, something the defense should strive for.
"Defense wins championships," that's what we always hear. Maybe it's appropriate to take this one step at a time, just get this week's victory.