2013 Carolina Panthers Defense: The Four Horsemen

RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!! - US PRESSWIRE

Conquest, War, Famine, and Death...What does it have to do with the Carolina Panthers? Let's take a look and find out.

I am sure many of you clicked on this article thinking "who in Billy Bob’s name is this Stevie Mercury guy?" Well, there is but one simple answer to that question. He is, unquestionably, the best damned writer to be added to the CSR staff in the last three days!

First, I would like to say that Cat Scratch Reader is my home-away-from-home. I have been a long-time reader (three years-ish) and a regular commenter on the site for the last year. I began writing Fanposts recently, and after receiving tremendous feedback and support from my CSR brethren I decided that I didn't want the fun to end! I reached out to James to express my interest in becoming a regular contributor and the rest, as they say, is history…

I would like to thank our gracious and dedicated staff for welcoming me with open arms and for the opportunity to write about one of my biggest loves on a forum which, as James noted in his recent article commemorating CSR’s 6th birthday, has become one of the foremost sources for Carolina Panthers news and commentary. If Panthers.com is the official mouthpiece of the Panthers, Cat Scratch Reader is its heart. Every writer, editor, manager, and reader bleeds the blue and black, and it shows. I am honored to be considered a part of it, and hope that my meager contributions will help as we try to make 2013 Cat Scratch Reader’s best year yet!

There, now that we’ve gotten the pleasantries out of the way it’s time to get down to business. C’mon, you didn’t really think I was just going to write a fluff piece and not even mention anything football-related, did you? Well, you aren't getting off that easy so stop crying and get it together! We’re men here, and I expect you to act like it...

Disclaimer: That last comment was not meant to exclude our female or younger readers; you are reading a football blog, so for our purposes you get to be honorary men, too. You’re welcome. So without further ado…

The Four Horsemen

Potential Apocalypse

As I was perusing the interwebs a couple nights ago I ran across a great article by Ben Stockwell over at Pro Football Focus. It is a great read and gives an eye-opening statistical breakdown to support what we here at CSR already knew: namely, that our defensive-end duo is one of, if not the best in the league.

Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy were an absolute force to be reckoned with last year. Big Money racked up 12.5 sacks (PFF gives him credit for 14) and The Kraken had the breakout year we've all been waiting for with 11 (PFF gives him 13), even while missing one game due to injury and rotating in at defensive tackle quite a bit. In a division that sports a definite future Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees as well as the Atlanta-based aerial assault version of the mythological Hydra in Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez, the importance of a strong pass-rush cannot be overstated. If you throw in the icy-hot Josh Freeman-to-Vincent Jackson connection in Tampa, the need becomes tantamount to eating or drinking.

We here at CSR have discussed ad nauseam the woes at the tackle position over the last several seasons. We've also commiserated in our optimism for the future after Ron Rivera and Dave Gettleman doubled down like Vegas high-rollers in the draft, selecting Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short back-to-back in the first two rounds. What we haven’t done is taken PFF’s statistical analysis of our existing bookends, added in our own statistically-based projections for our rookie tackles, subtracted out any Hatorade, multiplied by the number of times I’d like to see Matt Ryan pull divots out of his facemask this year, divided like the Jets’ locker room was last year (HIIII-YOOOOOOO!!!! ), and raised it to the power of my own homerism to determine what our expectations should be this season for a D-line that I truly hope will be worthy of being dubbed "The Four Horsemen" for many years to come. Ok, actually I am going to try to be as objective as possible, but I was on a roll there and it just couldn’t be stopped. I apologize…

Conquest and War

First we will consider the grizzled veterans of this group: our stout duo of pass-rushing maniac The more I think about it, the more I love the possibilities with this nomenclature! I bet if you asked Drew Brees, RGIII, or Philip Rivers, every one of them would consider "Conquest" an apt description of Big Money, as he conquered each of their offensive lines on the way to multiple-sack games in 2012. By extension, I doubt anyone would question that The Kraken considers each game a "War", with his Braveheart-esque eye-paint and creepy contact-lenses. If you need further proof, why don’t you just ask Carson Palmer if he’d like to do battle with Hardy again?

I will begin with a short recap of PFF’s findings; I highly recommend reading the entire article, but these are the highlights. Mr. Stockwell is obviously very high on our two young bulls, as he calls them "one of the league’s emerging pass-rusher partnerships." He lauded CJ’s ability to get pressure from the outside and Hardy’s uncanny ability to get inside pressure. He admits that the men are two of the best bull-rushers in the league (6th – Johnson; 7th – Hardy) and also states that "while neither player hit the highest of heights in any one category, they were both well-rounded in their ability to beat pass protectors by a variety of means." This definitely fits with our own conclusions here on CSR as we have noted that Rivera and Co. has always shown an affinity for players with versatility.

Ben goes on to note that while Hardy has no discernible weaknesses in his pass-rush arsenal, he is not elite in any one area. He also lamented CJ’s inability to close, as he only logged sacks or hits on 33.3% of his pressures. This has consistently been an issue for Big Money over the years, but I actually take a different message from this. If Johnson is producing 10+ sack seasons and hanging near the top of the league in production, yet his conversion rate is below league average then that means he must be getting an INSANE amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks in comparison with other pass-rushers in the league. Add in the fact that the big man has faced almost constant double-teams due to the aforementioned vacuum at defensive tackle, and I am very optimistic that once Star and KK get up to speed CJ’s conversion percentage will rise sharply.

The most important and heartening message I took from PFF’s analysis was in its’ conclusion about our prospects for the future:

In the 2012 season no team running a 4-3 defense had a two such highly-graded pass rushers as the Carolina Panthers. Courtesy of both players’ improvements on their respective 2011 seasons, both Hardy and Johnson were among our Top-10-rated 4-3 defensive ends as pass rushers and if both players can maintain that form with the potential improvements at defensive tackle, the Panthers will have one of the very best defensive lines in the league.

Well, there you have it, folks! Many of us have clamored for years for recognition from someone outside of the Panthers community, and it looks like we may finally not be the only ones who see a potential pot of gold at the end of the Panthers’ rainbow. Vindication at last!!!

Famine and Death

For the second part of this analysis I will take a look at the new blood, and try to determine what our realistic expectations should be for Star Lotulelei’s and Kawann Short’s rookie seasons. Luckily, CanadianPanther had already done much of this work for me in an earlier column, so I won’t try to reinvent the wheel. I have pulled the accompanying tables directly from his article, as I think the results are very reasonable and very close to what we should expect. Basically, CP compiled the rookie statistics for each defensive tackle selected in the 1st round over the last five years, then averaged their production to determine what Star’s median range would look like.

Year

Player

G

GS

T

A

T.T

FF

INT

PD

TFL

Sacks

2008

K. Balmer

16

0

6

1

7

0

0

1

0

0

2008

S. Ellis

13

13

20

10

30

0

0

5

1

4

2008

G. Dorsey

16

16

32

14

46

1

0

1

3

1

2009

P. Jerry

2

2

0

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

2009

B.J Raji

14

1

19

6

25

0

0

1

4

1

2010

D. Williams

15

0

27

11

38

0

0

2

1

0

2010

T. Alualu

16

16

29

9

38

0

0

1

4

3.5

2010

G. McCoy

13

13

21

6

27

2

0

4

5

3

2010

N. Suh

16

16

48

17

65

1

1

3

6

10

2011

C. Heyward

16

0

13

2

15

1

0

1

0

1

2011

M. Wilkerson

16

16

35

13

48

1

0

2

9

3

2011

C. Liuget

15

13

14

6

20

1

0

2

2

1

2011

N. Fairley

10

0

11

6

17

0

0

0

1

1

2011

M. Dareus

16

15

32

11

33

0

0

1

4

5.5

2012

M. Brockers

13

12

20

11

31

1

0

1

5

4

2012

F. Cox

15

9

32

7

39

1

0

4

5

5.5

2012

D. Poe

16

16

28

10

38

0

0

4

3

0

Average

14

9

23

8

31

0.53

0.059

1.94

3.1

2.56

Adjusted Average

16

16

30

12

42

2

0

3

5

4

As should be expected from the defensive tackle position, the numbers are by no means eye-popping, but I think we would all be happy with 42 tackles, 5 tackles-for-loss and 4 sacks. And if Ndamukong Suh sets the ceiling for Star, I would take that stat-line any day of the week and definitely twice on Sunday. I can only say further that if Star is able to step in immediately as the "Famine" of this line, every member of Panther Nation should rejoice. If we get everything we are hoping for then much like beleaguered farmers during a drought, opposing linemen and running backs will have to work twice as hard for half the production. We want the big man from Utah to be a space-eater, to command double teams and collapse the pocket, forcing runners to bounce outside and into the waiting arms of our menacing linebackers, and quarterbacks to seek their check-down reads as they realize there is no pocket to step into.

Year

Player

G

GS

T

A

T.T

FF

INT

PD

TFL

Sacks

2008

T. Laws

16

0

11

1

12

0

0

0

1

0

2009

S. Marks

9

0

7

5

12

0

0

1

0

1

2009

F. Moala

10

1

4

1

5

0

0

0

0

0

2009

R. Brace

9

2

6

2

8

0

0

0

0

0

2010

T. Cody

13

1

5

8

13

0

0

0

0

0

2010

L. Joseph

6

0

6

2

8

0

0

0

1

0

2010

T. Troup

15

2

11

12

23

0

0

2

1

0

2010

B. Price

5

0

3

0

3

0

0

0

0

0

2011

S. Paea

11

0

8

6

14

0

0

0

0

2

2012

D. Still

8

0

5

9

14

1

0

0

0

0.5

2012

J. Worthy

13

4

11

3

14

1

0

0

2

2.5

2012

K. Reyes

16

4

17

12

29

0

0

1

2

5.5

2012

D. Wolfe

16

16

26

14

40

0

0

2

1

6

Average

11

2

9.2

6

15

0.15

0

0.46

0.6

1.35

Adjusted Average

16

4

15

8

23

0

0

1

3

3

"And I saw, and behold, a pale horse: and he that sat upon him, his name was Death; and Hell followed with him."

I have to be honest; the symbolism here just gives me chills. CJ and Hardy are known quantities and Star is about as sure a bet as Luke Kuechly was for us last year. The biggest question mark out of Gettleman’s draft-day gamble is undoubtedly KK Short, and with an established but aging starter (Dwan Edwards) in front of him, most of us do not expect him to start from day one. This sets the stage perfectly for him to ride in on his pale horse later in the season, and represent the metaphorical "Death" for opposing offenses. CanadianPanther's analysis finds much the same, as the average 2nd round pick at defensive tackle over the past five seasons has only started four games and amassed 23 total tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks. It may not sound like much, but in our situation this production would be an absolute dream-scenario.

Just imagine a scene with me, if you will:

It’s week 14 and the Panthers are playing at New Orleans. Carolina took a few weeks to really jell together, but have cobbled together the possibility for a winning season heading into the final stretch for the first time in Cam Newton’s young career. They sit at 7-5 but face New Orleans twice over the final four weeks and have to travel to Atlanta for the regular season finale, so every game is critical. CJ, Star, Edwards, and Hardy have been playing well all year and KK has shown flashes in the rotation.

Star has really come into his own and has been giving the Saints’ All-World guards fits throughout the game, allowing CJ and Hardy to abuse the over-matched offensive tackles to the tune of three sacks in the first half. The score coming out of the half is tied, and the Saints receive the kick-off. Sean Payton and Drew Brees catch the Panthers sleeping and methodically drives down the field, getting to the 15-yard line before Dwan pulls up lame with a cramp on a short third-down run by Darren Sproles.

The NFL rolls to commercial while the referees measure and Dwan limps off the field. Upon returning we find that it is 4th and inches and of course Sean Payton has decided to go for it. This is the first momentum the Saints have had all day and he is ready to bury the dagger in our collective heart. The Saints come out in a Big Formation, and KK Short is lined up at under-tackle while Dwan’s on the shelf. Everyone expects a run right at the rookie, and we all hold our breath until – in typical Sean Payton fashion – the Saints TEs suddenly shift out wide. Brees hops back into the shotgun as Luke frantically hollers audibles to the defense. KK looks back over his shoulder a couple times as if he’s confused about what he needs to do…

Then the ball is snapped, and everything drops into slow motion. The Kraken and CJ both beat their men quickly and circle outside. Keek spies on Darren Sproles and follows him on a circle route. Thomas Davis breaks with Jimmy Graham toward the endzone and Jon Beason rushes forward as he sees Star get swallowed up by three blockers.

Panther Nation watches in dismay as Brees steps up to avoid our rushing ends, but just then KK bull rushes over his man, slamming into Brees just as Sproles catches Keek with his eyes in the backfield and takes off toward the endzone. Brees’ pass floats weakly over the linemen’s heads, right into Kuechly’s waiting hands. Luke "Hell" Kuechly follows right behind "Death" as KK clears a path, then Luke sprints in for the go-ahead touchdown. The Panthers never look back; winning their final four games and the division, then following the Four Horsemen to the apocalypse and beyond as they bring the Lombardi Trophy home for the first time of many in team history…

So I know I said I was going to be objective. Sue me…

Thanks for reading my flagship article, guys. I will keep them coming if you keep reading them, and as always… KEEP POUNDING!!!

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