If the Browns are looking for a pick-me-up after their consecutive last-minute losses to the Jets and Jaguars, the Carolina Panthers might be just what the team has been hoping for. The 1-9 Panthers are a bottomed-out franchise with a heavy rebuild forthcoming, and a coach/general manager combination in John Fox and Marty Hurney who probably won't survive the transition. Carolina's offense is a nightmare – DeAngelo Williams leads the team with 361 rushing yards, but he hasn't played since Week 7, and he was placed on injured reserve a couple of weeks ago. Leading passer Matt Moore has thrown twice as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (five). And Steve Smith, the former All-Pro receiver, is suffering from a severe case of quarterback anemia – he leads the team with just 34 catches on 69 targets for 411 yards and two touchdowns. This hot mess of an offense should be easy pickings for Rob Ryan's defense, and everybody knows it.
Where the Panthers are still a team of reasonable quality is on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerback Richard Marshall and safety Charles Godfrey have six interceptions between them, and cornerback Chris Gamble has eight passes defensed masking an unlucky total of zero picks. Linebacker James Anderson might be the NFL's most underrated defensive players; he ranks very highly in most of Football Outsiders' advanced metrics. And even when the Panthers' offenses gets bombed out, the team's defense manages to hold up pretty well for a unit with no support on the other side of the ball. Right now, Carolina ranks 17th in Football Outsiders' Defensive DVOA metrics, 16th against the pass, and 20th against the run. And because of the efforts of that secondary, the Panthers rank third against #1 receivers, and first overall against #2 receivers.
The Panthers have a 4-3 base defense with linebackers who can backpedal and make plays in space; as a result, they throw a lot of different zone looks at enemy offenses, and they're more assignment-correct than you might expect. In their 16-14 loss to the Saints in Week 4, the Panthers were able to effectively counter a short passing game not unlike what the Browns might send out there with either Jake Delhomme of Colt McCoy under center. One play in particular, an incomplete pass with 4.26 left in the first half, stood out to me.
Carolina put a tight 4-3 (closer safety coverage than your usual Cover-2) against New Orleans' two-tight end motion set. With Devery Henderson (19) in motion, Henderson and Robert Meachem (17) ran clearing routes to the weak side, with linebacker Jon Beason (52) dropping into coverage. The Panthers had the short routes covered, and there was enough pressure from the edges of Carolina's front four to force quarterback Drew Brees into a quick decision. With Beason coming back to help cover the already-covered left hash and flat, Brees had to throw the ball away.
The Panthers are a bad team with a good defense; their concepts of spacing in coverage are solid, and they're doing a great job of working around the team's offensive liabilities.