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Panthers vs Jets defensive preview: Time for the defense to realize its potential

The Panthers defense has a chance to make a statement against a rookie quarterback and an offense devoid of weapons.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers invested heavily into their defense last offseason, using all seven of their draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. That predictably didn’t lead to much early success as the Panthers languished as one of the worst defensive team in the NFL last season, but it stocked the cupboards for the future. The future is somewhat upon us now, so it’s time for this young defense to show what it has when the real bullets start flying.

The Panthers used free agency to plug some holes along the front seven, which makes this defense look deep and complete on paper. Homegrown talents like Brian Burns, Jeremy Chinn, and Jermaine Carter are expected to take big steps forward this season, while incoming veterans like Haason Reddick, Morgan Fox, and DaQuan Jones should be steady contributors. Their Week 1 opponent gives them the perfect opportunity to get off on the right foot.

The Jets look like they’ll be one of the meekest offenses in the league, especially early on. They’re headed by rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, who will probably be really good, but it probably won’t be right away, especially given the tools he had at his disposal. Corey Davis is the team’s best wide receiver, which is fine, but the rest of the depth chart sports names like Keelan Cole, Elijah Moore, and Denzel Mims. Tevin Coleman will probably head the backfield with rookie Michael Carter and unproven Ty Johnson alongside him. The offensive line is okay, but the weapons aren’t anything to write home about.

With that, here are what the Panthers need to do defensively to set themselves up for success.

  • Make the rookie quarterback uncomfortable. Zach Wilson will be making his NFL debut on Sunday. He’s never seen the true size and speed of NFL defenses. The Panthers need to use that against him. They need to confuse him with different pre-snap looks and emphasize getting pressure on the quarterback. Wilson is a bit of gunslinger, so there should be opportunities to bait him into bad decisions and force turnovers.
  • Generate pressure up the middle. The Jets strength along the offensive line is probably at tackle, while the interior is much softer. Familiar face Greg Van Roten mans one guard spot while rookie Alijah Vera-Tucker mans the other. Center Connor McGoven graded out as one of the worst pass blocking centers in the league last season. Derrick Brown and Da’Quan Jones should be able to get some push up the middle, with will help with point number one above.
  • Contain Tevin Coleman. Coleman has had a largely unspectacular career, but he’s looked like a Hall of Famer against the Panthers. In his last three games against the Panthers, Coleman has carried the ball 37 times for 263 yards (7.1 yards per carry). Last time out, as a 49er, Coleman ran for 105 yards and three touchdowns on just 11 carries, and he chipped in a fourth touchdown as a receiver. Coleman likes to make one cut and go, so the Panthers need to surround him with bodies and keep him bottled up around the line of scrimmage.
  • Get off the field on third down. The Panthers were the second worst team in the league at getting off the field on third down last season. They need to show that they’ve improved in that regard against what should be one of their easiest offensive opponents of the season.

The Panthers defense would have a hard time picking a better Week 1 opponent to get the 2021 season started on the right foot. They need to make some plays and shut the Jets down to show that this is a much improved unit compared to last year’s.