2013 Carolina Panthers preview: Strengths and weaknesses on defense

Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

A new article by Football Outsiders intensifies the gap between the Panthers up-and-down defense.

It doesn't take a genius to know that the Carolina Panthers have some of the league's best linebackers, pairing them with some of the worst defensive backs. It has been a team issue for the last three years, and is now further exacerbated with the release of Chris Gamble. The team has made moves in free agency to patch their secondary, but a new article by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders shows just how wide that gap is, by looking at two metrics.

Detrators of Luke Kuechly will say that a high tackle count doesn't mandate great play, while Panthers' fans will argue that unless you've watched him on the field, you just don't get it. Schatz plays the argument down the middle, and gives some much-needed context to tackles. In this piece he looks at 'clean up tackles', justifying them exactly how they sound -- putting in the work to correct a mistake by another player.

I thought it might be interesting to look at which players last year racked up tackle numbers by cleaning up mistakes by his teammates, as well as screens, dumpoffs and plays where the opposing quarterback had enough time in the pocket to find the holes in zone coverage.

This offers a complete picture of a tackling player. It's beyond a case of simply falling on a downed man for an assist, or only making plays when they're run directly at him. The clean up metric shows how often a player transcends their position, and helps the defense as a whole -- rather than staying in their lane.

There are two Panthers' linebackers who rank in the top fifteen. Thomas Davis finds himself in 7th, with 29 clean up tackles for an average gain of 7.5 yards. Davis was astonishingly good in 2012, making his comeback all the more mythical. To make up for a teammate's mistakes, and keep the gain under 8.0 yards is a feat matched only by Chad Greenway of the Minnesota Vikings.

The second, of course, is Luke Kuechly. Finishing at 11th with 28 stops for 10.5 yards, it's a testament to how much he was able to do as a rookie with porous defensive tackles.

It's not all happy news from Schatz's article, however. The stinger came in the form of Robert McClain, the former Panthers' draft pick who was released, and found a home in Atlanta. McClain not only led the Falcons in clean up tackles, he led he entire league in clean up tackles by a cornerback. Playing primarily in the nickel or dime role, he's doing for the Falcons is exactly what Carolina needs.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Charles Godfrey has the odious honor of being one of the worst defensive backs in the NFL when it comes to pass tackle stop rate. In 34 tackles he managed only three stops. His 9% rating in this category makes him the 11th worst overall.

Surely the worst is done with, right? Sadly, no. The opposite of a clean up tackle is 'tackles on own coverage', meaning a player who needed to be bailed out the most. Josh Norman was the 6th worst in the NFL, needing help 32 times and giving up an average of 13.3 yards. It further shows that Norman had no business starting, even out of necessity. The Panthers had to find veteran help after cuts, and instead elected to play young -- sinking them before they began.

While we didn't learn anything new from the Football Outsiders' piece, we got some validation that Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis were as good as we advertised. This was a double-edged sword, unfortunately, as the defensive backs proved to be just as bad as they looked on Sundays. In a perfect world the free agent signings would cure all the ills, but the team is still at least two years away from having a competitive secondary.

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