Much of the focus dedicated to the Carolina Panthers heading into the 2021 NFL season went to the new quarterback. That makes sense, Carolina made a fairly big effort and investment to upgrade the position with the acquisition of Sam Darnold.
The early returns were fine. It was one week and with such a long season ahead, we shouldn’t overreact to what happened in the season’s opening week. Now with that caveat out of the way, you guys, the Panthers’ defense was really fun.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, either. The Panthers have put a ton of resources into the defensive side of the ball during the Matt Rhule era. Derrick Brown was a top-10 pick in 2020. Jeremy Chinn was selected in the second round of that draft to be a do-it-all safety. Jaycee Horn was a top-10 pick in this year’s draft. Haason Reddick was brought in as a free agent to reprise the pass-rush-heavy he excelled in under Rhule at Temple. Brian Burns pre-dates the Rhule era, but he’s Football Twitter’s favorite breakout player.
There are plenty of individual pieces to be excited about, but this wasn’t a unit that had much success last season. The Panthers were 24th in defensive DVOA last season. They were 22nd in EPA per play allowed against the pass and 20th against the run, per Sports Info Solutions.
So much of the Panthers’ 2020 defense was passive, simply out of necessity. They played the most zone coverage of any team in the league and rushed three on 21% of pass snaps, the second-highest rate in the league. Some of those three-man looks stemmed from the Tite fronts brought over from the college game by defensive coordinator Phil Snow, but other times it was as passive as a three-man rush could get.
That doesn’t appear to be the case this season. It’s just one week, but the Panthers’ defense could be aggressive and fun.
In their 19-14 win over the New York Jets, the Panthers showed a clear difference in philosophy from what they felt they needed to do in 2020. Carolina blitzed more often and relied on single-high man coverage behind the pressure. Last year, the Panthers blitzed just 19% of the time, which ranked 27th in the league. Even when they did blitz, they weren’t very successful. Carolina allowed positive EPA on 54% of their blitzes, which ranked 29th in the league.
Against the Jets in Week 1, the Panthers had a 29% blitz rate and rushed three just 2% of the time. What they did around some of those pressure looks should bring some optimism for the potential of this defense in 2021.
On the Jets’ first drive of the game, they faced a second-and-14 from their own 31-yard line. The Jets motioned from empty and brought the back into the backfield to tip off the coverage. Along the defensive line, the Panthers showed a pressure look with six potential rushers, including slot the slot corner.
The extra pressure appeared as if it was going to come against the offense’s left, so the protection slid in that direction. With the secondary playing far off on that side, Zach Wilson believed he’d have a shot to get the ball out quickly throwing into the blitz. But at the snap, the slot corner backed off and started to drop back into coverage.
Shortly after, the edge to that side (Reddick, 43) also dropped back into coverage. Reddick was replaced in the rush by the linebacker to the opposite side to still make it a four-man rush. With the protection set to the pre-snap pressure side, the right tackle picked up the rush from the linebacker and left Brian Burns unblocked on the backside.
With Wilson convinced he’d have an easy throw into the hole between the blitz and the coverage, he didn’t see Burns and had no opportunity to throw with his expected window slammed shut.
Carolina also played around with their personnel and gave the Jets a ton of different looks with the same players. SIS charted the Panthers with a 2-4-5 personnel package on 42% of their snaps and a 3-4-4 package on 38%. Those rates ranked second and third in the league. Some of that is deceiving because in both of those packages Burns and Reddick are considered linebackers, but that’s also the point. Either one of those players can come screaming off the edge or drop back into coverage. Burns dropped back on four of his 31 pass snaps per SIS and Reddick did so on 10 of his 33.
Jeremy Chinn is also a key player here. After a lot of offseason talk about the second-year defender playing more traditional safety, in Week 1 Chinn played 31 of his snaps in the box and 22 deep, per PFF.
That versatility can play a huge part in how the Panthers can structure their defense.
In the second quarter, the Jets had a first-and-10 at midfield. Carolina came out in their 3-4-4 package with Reddick and Burns on the defensive line to give the Panthers a five-man front look. Defenses have been using 5-1 fronts to counter the Shanahan-McVay wide zone offenses but against the Jets’ heavily condensed set, the Panthers still kept their two off-ball linebackers in the middle of the field and even moved Chinn up to the line for a six-man front.
The Jets faked a run to the right and attempted to boot Wilson back to the left but Chinn had rushed off the backside and was in the quarterback’s face before Wilson could fully set his feet. The rookie tried to get the ball away, but it was tipped by Chinn.
On the next play, the Panthers went back to traditional nickel personnel, but kept Chinn in the box for a base look. Carolina was able to get pressure with four and Wilson forced a ball into a closing window without seeing Shaq Thompson, who brought the ball in for an interception.
Later in the game, Carolina came out in another five-man front in 3-4-4 personnel. Reddick came unblocked from the ride side but Wilson was able to avoid the rush. But even with five defenders rushing the passer, the Jets had nowhere to go with the ball. Thompson was able to carry wide receiver Jeff Smith all the way across the field to break up Wilson’s pass.
This was just one game against a rookie quarterback but it still showed how the Panthers are thinking about defending an offense that has spread throughout the NFL and the way they plan to use the talent they have on the defensive side of the ball.
Carolina isn’t likely to finish third in defensive DVOA as they currently rank after Week 1 (they’re 16th in DAVE which still factors in preseason projections) but this team could be onto something on this side of the ball. The Panthers have spent a ton of resources getting more talent on the defense and it appears they at least are figuring out an effective way to use it.