The Panthers have many holes. If they hope to improve on last year's record, they cannot move into 2013 with essentially the same team.
The obvious needs are bandied about quite often; offensive guard/tackle, defensive tackle, safety, corner, and wide receiver. Arguably, an additional pass rusher should be right near the top of those needs.
Even though the Panthers had two double-digit sack players in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, and received quality play from rookie Frank Alexander, they could stand to add another quality pass rusher.
The truth of the matter is that most of our defensive meltdowns last year can be directly correlated with the crumble of the pass rush. As the game progressed, both Johnson and Hardy would see a litany of snaps, as the Panthers depended on them to provide a pass rush. However, as the game drew into the fourth quarter, the pass rush provided by Johnson and Hardy would deteriorate, as their stamina decreased.
On the season, the combined duo of Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson averaged 112 snaps per game. Per the 15 games he played in 2012, Greg Hardy played 55 snaps per game, while Charles Johnson played 57 snaps per game. As they reached the azimuth of roughly 50 snaps, the Panthers pass rush would typically disappear. Subsequently, the Panthers were forced to turn to players like UDFA Nate Chandler, and former practice squad player Mario Addison to relieve Johnson and Hardy.
The Panthers Defense relies heavily on their pass rush, especially so with the relative inadequacy of the secondary. The Panthers were very fortunate that the strength of the pass rush was able to help mask the inefficiencies of players such as Josh Norman, Haruki Nakamura, Josh Thomas, and Captain Munnerlyn.
Looking over a few case studies, it is clear that the Panthers pass rush faded away late in games, coinciding with a few Panthers losses. And while of course there were other factors at play in these losses, the fading of the pass rush, helped lead to the perceived meltdown of the defense, as we shall see.
Our first look is towards the first matchup with Atlanta, Week 4. In each example, we will look at the opponent's first ten pass attempts, and compare them to their last ten pass attempts.
The Panthers pass rush was sweltering early on versus Atlanta. Of Atlanta's first ten pass plays, only four passes were completed, for a total of 31 yards (including the yardage lost on sacks), and one checkdown [3.1 YPA]. The combined duo of Johnson and Hardy played a total of 113 snaps versus the Falcons.
Now for the last ten pass attempts: five completed passes (two checkdowns) for 69 yards [6.9 YPA]. The Falcons would be able to move the ball through the air, and get in position for a last second field goal to win the game.
The next look is perhaps the most startling; Week 8 versus Chicago.
In perhaps their most suffocating play of the season, the Panthers pass rush annihilated the Bears passing game early on. Of their first ten pass attempts, the Bears only completed three passes, including one checkdown... for 6 total yards [0.6 YPA]. Johnson and Hardy would play 106 snaps versus Chicago. In part, the dominating effort of the Defense, which allowed the Panthers Offense to control the possession clock, helped to give an early respite to the defensive line.
Now for the last ten pass attempts, which were comprised of the Bears final two drives of the game. Of their final ten pass attempts, the Bears completed nine passes for 84 yards, including two checkdowns [8.4 YPA]. On their final two drives, the Bears would score a TD, and the game winning field goal, as time expired.
The final example, and possibly the most painful for Panthers fans, occurred Week 11 versus Tampa Bay.
The Panthers Defense did not start off hot; the Buccaneers completed five of their first ten passing attempts for 53 yards, which includes three checkdowns [5.3 YPA]. The Panthers pass rush would stabilize, and even force a Josh Freeman pick six. A bit of a caveat, the game did move into overtime; the duo of Hardy and Johnson played a combined 138 snaps --their highest total of the season.
With the success of their running game, the Bucs were able to move the ball with ease, however it was the dominance of their passing game which put the nail in the coffin for the Panthers. Of their final ten pass attempts, the Bucs completed seven passes for 112 yards [11.2 YPA], including one checkdown.
The Buccaneers were able to move the ball down the field and overcome a two score deficit with only a few minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, before finishing the Panthers off with a 15 yard Dallas Clark TD in OT.
It's tough to make definitive conclusions with the number of confounding variables involved, however, if the Panthers pass rush had been better rested moving into the fourth quarter of these games, it is entirely possible that they are able to stem the opponent's tide, and eek out a win for Carolina. Just ceding these losses, the Panthers would have finished 10-6 in prime position for a playoff spot.
Any number of things could give the Panthers a longer enduring pass rush. With less three-and-outs, or stalled possessions, the Offense would've eaten up the clock, and given the Defensive Line some needed relief. An additional high quality pass rusher who plays 30 snaps per game, while producing a pass rush, would mitigate some of the pressure placed on Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. Maybe a healthy Thomas Keiser, and/or Antwan Applewhite, provide the production.
In the grand scheme of things, a capable offensive guard, or a starting safety, are not, in and of themselves, going to provide the Panthers with another 1-3 immediate wins. Rather than rolling the dice that the Offense will be more possessive next season, or that Keiser & Applewhite will complete the pass rushing rotation, the Panthers Front Office might be better served investing a high draft pick in another pass rusher, i.e. Jarvis Jones, Barkevious Mingo, or Bjoern Werner. In this option, the Panthers can groom another top-echelon pass rusher, while perhaps providing an out in the future salary cap woes, with Hardy and Johnson.