The Carolina Panthers have built a reputation as a strong defensive team. This team was always built to win with a strong defense and ball control offense. The defense-first plan was emphasized even further when the team's top target Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season with a torn ACL during training camp.
When it rains it pours. Benjamin's injury made it even more important that the defense be at its best to keep the scores low. Unfortunately, less than halfway through the first half of the first game of the season, the Panthers lost arguably the best defensive player in the league, Luke Kuechly, to a concussion. Luckily for the Panthers, the schedule worked in their favor, somewhat mitigating the loss of Kuechly with weak offensive opponents.
The absence of Kuechly opened the door for a new face of the Panthers defense. Josh Norman has himself in the early running for defensive player of the year. The fourth year pro has gone from a rookie whipping boy to star cornerback. He has the lowest passer rating against out of any CB in the league that has played at least 25% of their team's snaps with a 23.1 rating (Out of 104 qualified players). That rating comes from an extremely impressive stat line. The former Coastal Carolina Chanticleer has allowed a completion just 42.9% of the times he's been targeted (12th best), allowed only 8.6 yards per catch (7th best), and surrendered only one touchdown while picking off four passes and returning two of them for scores (The latter two both lead the league).
Norman hasn't been the only bright spot for the Panthers through the first quarter of the season. Fellow corner Bené Benwikere has had a strong season of his own. While his numbers aren't as gaudy as Norman's, he's done an excellent job limiting opposing receivers. Up front, Kawann Short has made his presence felt. Though the third year pro out of Purdue is yet to register a sack on the season, he ranks second among defensive tackles with his 10 hurries.
As a whole, the unit performed very well in the first quarter of the season, especially considering the injury issues throughout the defense. Even accounting for the Panthers weak offensive schedule, the team ranks as the 4th best defense in the league according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. That ranking is largely bolstered by a strong Panthers pass defense, where they rank 3rd in DVOA, but hampered by a poor 21st DVOA ranking against the run. Hopefully the return of Luke Kuechly will ameliorate the concerns in the run game. If that proves to be true, this Panthers defense has the potential to be a dominant unit that can carry the team to success this year.
Other Fun Stats
- The Panthers defense allowed the 3rd fewest yards per play in the first 4 weeks of the season (4.7)
- The Panthers allow the 3rd most first downs per game
- But they force the 9th highest punts per score
- The Panthers have the 3rd best DVOA against their opponents' #1 WR, 4th against #2 WRs, and 1st against TEs
- Josh Norman leads the league in interception return yardage
- Mario Addison ranks 3rd among DEs in PFF's pass rush productivity (16 pressures in 104 rushes)
- Ryan Delaire's pass rush productivity against the Bucs was 17.0. The league leader among qualified DEs is at 16.5