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4 Questions for the Defense Going into 2021


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1. Can the pass rush build on their 2020 momentum?

 

This team only tallied 29 sacks last season, tied with the Falcons for 24th in the NFL. That might lead one to believe they have a weak pass rush, but that number is misleading. For one thing, sacks are notoriously fickle and often vary wildly from year to year. More importantly, the Panthers’ pass rush came on strong down the stretch in 2020, a positive indicator for how they’ll perform this year.

The best example was the matchup against the Packers, when they effectively swarmed Aaron Rodgers and shut him down – holding the eventual league MVP to just 143 passing yards while racking up five sacks. It was a breakout game for rookie DT Derrick Brown, who had two. If Brown picks up where he left off and Yetur Gross-Matos has better luck with his health, a huge boost in production is possible. They’ve also added Haason Reddick to the mix, who posted 12.5 sacks last season.

Even if Reddick can’t repeat that stat, his presence makes this a more potent unit overall, which is critical. Strong pass-rushing teams like Tampa last year benefit from a cumulative effect – the more weapons a defense has up front, the easier it us for any one of them to get to the QB. If the Panthers can get that kind of dynamic going, it will help burgeoning superstar Brian Burns unleash his awesome potential.

2. Are they really ready for more man defense?

 

Effective defense is a two-way street and the front-seven certainly has to do their part. That said, the best way for this group to improve will be getting more consistent coverage on the back end.

Part of that will come down to new pieces like first-round pick Jaycee Horn living up to the hype. Horn will be starting Week 1 opposite Donte Jackson and likely cover the other team’s top receiver. Even with Julio Jones mercifully out of the division, that’s a daunting prospect for a rookie DB in the NFC South. He will still have to contend with the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Michael Thomas and Calvin Ridley.

Even if Horn is a lock-down corner right away, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Panthers can effectively play more man defense. After all, Horn is only one guy and somebody else will have to cover freakish, mismatch-creating athletes like Kyle Pitts, Rob Gronkowski and Alvin Kamara.

The big question is determining just how much man coverage this unit can handle. Matt Patricia's Lions were an excellent example of what can happen when teams stubbornly stick with man without the right personnel. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow might have to adjust fast depending on the results.

3. What's the right combination at cornerback?

 

Yesterday we learned from the Athletic’s reporting that the Panthers told veteran cornerback AJ Bouye he's needed at nickel back. While he seems invigorated by the challenge, Bouye has spent pretty much his entire career in the NFL on the outside, which makes this an interesting decision. Bouye will miss thefirst two games of the year due to a PED suspension, which gives Snow a chance to evaluate other options in the slot. That could be critical if Bouye winds up struggling inside when he joins the lineup.

From where we’re sitting, the best option to cover the slot currently on the roster is Donte Jackson, whose aggressive instincts and athleticism have served him well outside. However, Jackson’s size has been an issue at times and he might thrive with a chance to play the nickel spot. Flipping Jackson and Bouye’s roles might be the answer.

Whatever Snow decides, the important thing is to keep tinkering until he finds a combination that works.

4. Who takes Tre Boston's former spot?

 

Last but certainly not least, Carolina’s defense has one more huge personnel need to fill: that being the gigantic hole at free safety left behind by Tre Boston’s inexplicable release.

For most of the offseason, there’s been no true free safety on the roster. That may change this week, though. According to Pro Football Talk, the team has invited Ha HA Clinton-Dix for a minicamp tryout. At this stage of his career (96 regular season games played), Clinton-Dix is far from a perfect solution, but he’s definitely a better choice than Juston Burris, Kenny Robinson and the other contenders to take over at this position. In any case, rolling into Week 1 with the current group seems like a disaster waiting to happen.

If Clinton-Dix isn’t the answer, other notable free agents worth considering include Malik Hooker and Earl Thomas.

 

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1. Can the pass rush build on their 2020 momentum?
Yes.  Yes it will.

2. Are they really ready for more man defense?
Yes.  Yes we are.

3. What's the right combination at cornerback?
Bouye to slot?  Seems Djax should be there, but I know he wants to get paid.  Bouye to slot should work.

4. Who takes Tre Boston's former spot?
 Burris had 53 tackles, 4 pass deflections and an interception in 13 games last year. His pff is 55 fwiw.    

Clinton-Dix had  65 tackles, and two ints in 2019.  He was out last year.  74 pff fwiw 

 XFL prospect Kenny Robinson was drafted in the 5th, waived, then signed PS, then signed to the active roster in late October.  He saw the field in 9 games, mostly special teams, and has 1 assisted tackle.

By far our weakest  position on D.  We may not be done looking here yet.

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I think we have good players starting and a lot of depth.  This is going to give Snow plenty of flexibility to do things we didn't or were unable to do last year.

This defense is going to be fun to watch.  If they can make it difficult for teams to score.

Darnold might be able to lead us to several wins because our defense has kept the score low.

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Pressure needs to turn to sacks or a broken play. All too often those pressures ended up being a positive play for the opposing offense. That is not ‘misleading’ to me (?).

Add that to the horrible run defense. Panther allowed more average rushing yards than 28 other teams.

Aside form pressure, Panthers were in the bottom 4 for INTs. That’s really bad.

The backfield is certainly lacking but it won’t really matter if teams continue to run right through the Dline.

Edited by onmyown
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7 hours ago, CarolinaLivin said:

1. Can the pass rush build on their 2020 momentum?

Good questions!

I hope (expect?!) that a strengthened Secondary will really help the pass rush giving them those extra split seconds to go from "nearly a sack" to a sack, or at least a QB hit / hurry and a disruption of the play.

 

Which leads to your question 2 about playing more press-man coverage.  We REALLY need to, and given how JayCee Horn has been described, I think we'll all feel cheated if we don't see more man coverage.  It's been a big weakness of our defense for a few years and I've grown quite excited about Horn's being picked at #8 if it means we'll have a more aggressive defense and can get off the field on 3rd & long.  I'm glad Fitterer and the Front Office acknowledged the weakness and seem to be trying to do something about it!

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I will continue to dispute this notion that Burris is a scrub.  He's better than a lot of guys we've had back there over the years.  DeCoud, Naka, Beantown... too many to even begin remembering.  Painful and my memory is shot. 

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Of course we can get more pressure. We just need a better scheme than rushing 3 folks.  Can we play more man? I thought the answer was yes with Aboye potentially outside but with Donte alligator arms Jackson I am not sure.  Then again we will likely play zone and man. Can't just play one  coverage exclusively.

I thought we were trying Chinn at free safety and this wasn't mentioned at all. 

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We lead the league in cover 3 last year.  We will play more man.   But I doubt we actually play a lot of man.   More coming from where we were doesn’t translate to a lot vs the rest of the league.  At least in 2021. . 

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