Analyzing Panthers Defense Under McDermott

Sean McDermott took over as defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers prior to the 2011 season and after only one season he helped turn this group into a consistent Top 10 defense. Publisher Brandon Croce breaks down the Panthers’ defense over the past four seasons under McDermott.

One of the first moves Ron Rivera made when he was named head coach of the Carolina Panthers was to hire Sean McDermott as defensive coordinator. At the time, McDermott was recently fired as defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. The move was a great one as he has been incredibly successful while with Carolina.

The Panthers defense struggled his first season as coordinator, ranking in the bottom half of a majority of defensive categories. However, he quickly turned that around and the Panthers are currently riding a streak of three straight seasons of Top 10 defenses.

  2011 Season 2012 Season 2013 Season 2014 Season
  Total Rank Total Rank Total Rank Total Rank
Total Yards Against Per Game 377.6 28 333.1 10 301.3 2 339.8 10
Points Against Per Game 26.8 27 22.7 18 15.1 2 23.4 21
First Downs Allowed 329 23 325 20 278 2 309 9
Third Down Percentage 42.8 27 36.1 9 35.8 12 42.4 22

The Panthers operate primarily out of a 4-3 defense, which means four defensive linemen and three linebackers. One characteristic of McDermott’s defense is the fact that they don’t blitz, or send more than four pass rushers, a great deal.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Panthers only blitzed on 23.6 percent of opponents’ dropback in 2014, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. That number didn’t change much from the previous season when they ranked 24th.

One thing that did change was their success when they didn’t blitz. In 2013, the Panthers defense ranked 4th in Pass Rushing Productivity Without the Blitz and saw that rank drop all the way to 19th. The primary reason for this drop has to be strongly connected to the absence of Greg Hardy.

The team struggled to find a replacement for him for a majority of the season, however Kony Ealy’s three straight sacks at the end of the 2014 regular season has to give this coaching staff some hope.

When the Panthers do blitz though, they are incredibly successful, ranking 5th in the NFL in Pass Rushing Productivity While Blitzing. McDermott has developed an excellent feel for the game and knowing when to dial up the blitz.

  2011 Season 2012 Season 2013 Season 2014 Season
  Total Rank Total Rank Total Rank Total Rank
Passing Yards Against Per Game 247 24 223 13 214 6 228 11
Passing Touchdowns Against 28 25 22 13 17 3 25 15
Sacks 31 25 39 9 60 1 40 13
Interceptions 14 20 11 23 20 5 14 14

The Panthers secondary was in constant flux for a majority of the season. The team had to revamp almost the entire secondary with the losses of Captain Munnerlyn and Michael Mitchell in free agency and the retirement of Quintin Mikell after the 2013 season. Their replacements, Thomas Decoud and Antonie Cason, struggled in 2014 and were cut before the end of the season.

This group did end on a higher note than it started with Bene Benwikere, Tre Boston and particularly Josh Norman all playing at high levels. This young trio, with the experience of Roman Harper, should make this a tough secondary and make this a tough defense to beat through the air.

  2011 Season 2012 Season 2013 Season 2014 Season
  Total Rank Total Rank Total Rank Total Rank
Rushing Yards Against Per Game 130.8 25 110.1 14 86.9 2 112 16
Rushing Touchdowns Against 18 29 11 12 4 1 14 21
Fumbles Forced 10 2 7 13 5 22 6 16
Fumbles Recovered 4 7 4 12 2 24 2 18

Similar to the passing statistics, the rushing defense took a down turn in 2014. Opposing offenses ran for 25 more yards per game and scored 10 more rushing touchdowns last year than compared to 2013.

The loss of Greg Hardy once again had an effect on this, who was a pretty good run stopper on the edge. Pro Football Focus gave him a run defense rating of 8.1 in 2013, while Kony Ealy had a rating of -9.7 last year.

In addition to the loss of Hardy, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei took a bit of a step back his sophomore season. Pro Football Focus gave him a rating of 12 in run defense as a rookie but that rating dropped to 4.1 last season.

However, the drop wasn’t as bad as it could have been thanks to linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Both linebackers are exceptional at filling running lanes and closing on ball carriers.

 

What to Expect in 2015

Panthers’ fans can expect a lot of the same from the past few seasons. The defensive gameplan Sean McDermott and Ron Rivera have built over the years has been incredibly successful and they shouldn’t throw it out after a small step back in 2014.

By looking at just the stats from last year it would make one question if this defense was starting to slip. However a case could be made that last year was McDermott’s best job yet. They lost their Pro Bowl defensive end after Week 2 of the season and only had one player in their secondary play every game of the season.

The Panthers should be much stronger entering 2015 with a majority of their starting lineup at the end of the season returning. They shouldn’t face the same stumbling blocks they did at the start of last year, scrambling to find an effective defense.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement and the focus should be on creating an effective pass rush. They saw their sacks drop by 20 or over one sack per game. The loss of Hardy certainly had an impact on that but the struggles in the secondary could have played a role as well.

Opposing wide receivers were getting open with a little more ease and opposing quarterbacks didn’t have to hold the ball as long. The addition of Charles Tillman plus the development of Tre Boston and Bene Benwikere should help in this area.

Sean McDermott has done an excellent job as defensive coordinator and if the Panthers end up with another Top 10 defense, his days in Carolina could be numbered. In January, McDermott interviewed with the New York Jets for their head coaching vacancy, according to Pro Football Talk. With another strong season, it would be safe to assume he will be getting more than one interview after this season.

 

Stats courtesy of ESPN.com, unless otherwise noted

Brandon Croce is the Lead Publisher for PantherInsider.com. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonCroce.

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