We have reached the mid -point in the NFL season where everyone in the league has played at least 8 games, and it's with this sample I feel we can begin to make conclusions about the data that we have been presented with. From the beginning of the season, I felt there would one area of strength that would ultimately propel us forwards to the playoffs. That area of strength? I pinpointed it would be our red zone defense, which I hypothesized would become one of the best in the league as I watched our menacing front seven in action. The basis of the theory is simple: once a team reaches the red zone, they are left with a lot less room in which to operate. Considering the deficiencies in the secondary, it stood to reason that once the defense had less room to have to cover, it would accentuate our front seven's strengths while de-emphasizing our issues in the secondary.
The statistics don't lie. Going to this TeamRankings chart detailing the percentage of TDs a defense allow in red zone situations is definitive proof that my theory was correct. The Panthers rank 3rd in the NFL at limiting opponents touchdowns in the red zone, allowing the opponent to punch it in a mere 37.5% of the time. Compare that to 2012, where the Panthers were merely average, finishing 16th in the league with a 53.2% stoppage rate. Our revamped defense is stymying opponents once they reach the most important part of the field, and the difference between 7 points and 3 is absolutely enormous in the grand scheme of things. This knowledge has allowed our secondary to not overextend themselves in coverage, deciding that keeping plays in front of them and preventing the big is their most important function. Avoiding big plays on defense is of prime importance considering our dominance in the red zone if the offense matriculates the ball down the field slowly. We're T10th for 40+ plays allowed with 7 (1-9 is between 4-6) and 14th in 20+ plays allowed (35-44 is the range of those ahead of us), showing that this is something to focus on in the coming weeks.
Ultimately, however, this red zone dominance does not necessarily translate to getting to the playoffs. While the current Top 10 has contenders like Kansas City, Seattle, and Detroit in its midst, it also contains the likes of Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and Buffalo. 2012 tells a similar story, with 5 of the teams in the Top 10 ultimately missing the playoffs. What IS important, to me, is what it could mean IF we make it to the playoffs. Last year's leader, the Baltimore Ravens, ultimately won the Super Bowl. This year's leader, Kansas City, remains the lone undefeated squad in the NFL. In the playoffs where every game is winner take all, that 4 point difference between a touchdown and a field goal takes on a whole new level of importance. Being able to stop opponents in the red zone is likely one of the biggest factors that will decide who wins a playoff game, and I don't know if there is another defense I'd take in the league over Carolina for stopping an opponent once they reach the red zone. We won't be able to get to the postseason on the strength of this red zone defense alone, but once we're actually able to get there? 2003 isn't such a distant dream, at least from my point of view.