In the third year of the Ron Rivera era, the Carolina Panthers‘ defense has evolved from unreliable in the fourth quarter and vulnerable in the secondary, into a rock-solid turnover machine. The Panthers’ defense ranks in the top five in many league categories, including total defense (third), rush defense (second) and scoring defense (second), and those stats match up well with game film.
Newcomers Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short have been instrumental in the defensive transformation, solidifying the interior line and keeping linemen off Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly.
Though the Panthers’ defense has formidable stats and a now fearsome reputation, much of their good play has come against subpar teams with disorganized offenses. Moreover, the Panthers haven’t faced many top tier quarterbacks this season, other than Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan, which has prevented their ailing and young secondary from getting exposed.
The Atlanta Falcons showed some of the Panthers’ defensive weaknesses last week, with Harry Douglas making big catches and Tony Gonzalez consistently getting open, as well as only generating one sack. The Panthers still held the Falcons under 300 yards and forced four turnovers, which is a testament to their talent, but they will have to shore up those glitches before tougher teams shine a light on them.
Speaking of tougher competition, the Panthers next opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, bring a level of offense that the Panthers haven’t seen since Week 1. The 49ers lead the league in rushing behind veteran mainstay Frank Gore and the young gun Colin Kaepernick.
In the passing game, their biggest threat comes from athletic tight end Vernon Davis, who will give Kuechly and Davis headaches. The Panthers do have the talent up front to match up with San Fran’s strong O-line and stop the run, but they may have trouble with Davis and Kaepernick.
Neither Davis nor Chase Blackburn are fast enough to cover Vernon Davis down the seam, so Kuechly may be the only option, and a good one after his performance against Gonzalez. The Panthers may even consider putting Mike Mitchell on him, but that may be a poor decision given the size differential.
Kaepernick will also be a problem with his legs, and he will test the gap discipline of the Panthers. Two of the Panthers’ losses have come against fairly mobile quarterbacks, Wilson and E.J. Manuel, and both used their legs to beat the Panthers at the end of the game. The Panthers have changed since those games, though, and hopefully those changes will show.