The Carolina Panthers have now firmly established that their front seven is the best in the NFC after outplaying a very similar unit on Sunday, limiting the San Francisco 49ers‘ offense to 151 yards and generating six sacks. While the Panthers’ front seven played fairly well against the run, going above their season average by allowing 102 yards rushing but also holding the league’s top rushing attack well under their average, it was the whole team’s effort against the pass that made the difference.
The thing that makes the passing game so different for a defense in comparison to the running game is the need for every player to be involved. With a run the defense is defending a much smaller area near the line of scrimmage and in the tackle box (not the case in tosses or sweeps, where the tackle box essentially shifts to the side of the run), and those closest to that area are the most involved. While defensive backs do have to make plays in the run game when it gets to the perimeter or the second level, a majority of runs are stopped quickly by those in close proximity, making the players on the backside or in the defensive backfield essentially irrelevant during that particular sequence.
The passing game is much different, however. Everyone has be aware of their area in the passing game, and even if a player is nowhere near the ball at the end of the play their presence influenced where that ball was thrown. The Panthers don’t have incredible playmakers on the back end, but their team effort has allowed their pass defense to be very solid. Every level is in the right place and plays the right role with the D-line harassing the quarterback, linebackers locking down the middle and the flats, and the secondary not only winning one-on-one matchups but also working together to bracket and contain dangerous receivers.
With a complete pass defense combined with a dominant run defense, the Panthers’ defense is surely the best in the NFC. Obviously the Seattle Seahawks will have something to say about that with their third ranked total defense and second ranked passing defense, but the Panthers’ dominance across the board (2nd in total defense, 2nd in scoring defense, 2nd in rushing defense, 4th in passing defense, 1st in interceptions) gives them the nod over the ‘Hawks. The Panthers’ defense is not yet the best in the league, however, simply because of the dominance of AFC units like the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs.