Carolina's Primary Defensive Concern Is Young Secondary
Clichés, for better or worse, have been a part of the sports vernacular for a long time. They were simultaneously ridiculed and immortalized in a memorable exchange from the 1988 baseball film Bull Durham. The scene humorously shows how ridiculous some of the most commonly used phrases really sound when you stop and think about them. While some are endearingly inane, others are unquestionably annoying. Every now and then though, some seem logical and even accurate - or at least we think they are accurate. As the scene shows, we become numb from hearing them so often and just assume they sound normal and probably accurate.
One of the most used clichés in the NFL (and all of sports for that matter) is "defense wins championships". For much of the history of the NFL, this was true. In recent years, however, the league has moved away from this pseudo-conventional wisdom. The NFL has become a passing league. Creating super-powered offenses led by double-threat quarterbacks has become the dominant trend in front office strategies - and not without reason. Last season, the Baltimore Ravens defense, perennially among the league’s best, suffered from injuries that forced them to lean heavily on their offense. QB Joe Flacco responded by leading the team to a Super Bowl championship and by playing well enough to earn the most lucrative contract in the league. A year earlier, the New York Giants became the first team to give up more points than they scored and still win the Super Bowl.
However, this does not mean that defense is not important anymore. In actuality, it is equally important to have a good defense and offense. The Carolina Panthers are a team that had its share of struggles on both sides of the ball last season. But over the course of the offseason, defensive-minded head coach Ron Rivera and the Panthers front office chose to focus their efforts on upgrading the defense first.
In 2012, the Panthers were 13th in pass defense and 14th in rush defense. In the spring, they aimed to improve their defensive line by acquiring a pair of promising rookie defensive tackles in the NFL draft. However, it should be noted that they also made improving their secondary a priority.
Panthers starting CB Chris Gamble was released in the offseason, leaving an opening in a spot he prolifically occupied for nine seasons. Gamble, who retired after missing most of the 2012 season with a torn labrum, ended his career as the Panthers all time leader in interceptions. The most obvious candidate to step into his role is CB Captain Munnerlyn. Munnerlyn was originally overlooked for his size and started out as a punt returner in 2009, but in his second season, he worked his way into the cornerback rotation and became a starter the following year. Last season, Munnerlyn had two interceptions, two touchdowns and nine passes defensed in 16 games. He will have to step up and live up to his name as the Panthers top cornerback this season.
The team also brought in a pair of new cornerbacks to help Munnerlyn carry the load. Veteran Drayton Florence has played for five different teams in his 10-year NFL career. Going into his 11th season at the age of 32, Florence will be by far the most experienced member of the Carolina secondary. What he has lost in speed over the years, he will make up with experience. Throughout most of his career, Florence has been the starting right cornerback, but has been put on the left as well as at strong safety as his playing time has decreased in recent years.
There is also the significantly younger D.J. Moore. Moore, who is the same age as Munnerlyn, followed a similar track. He began in Chicago in 2009 as a returner, but gradually started getting time as a nickelback. However, he has only started three games in his NFL career. Regardless, Moore has shown promise, snagging three interceptions over the past three seasons.
Carolina also still has the relatively inexperienced returners, Josh Thomas and Josh Norman. Over two years, Thomas has appeared in 25 games, with most of them coming last season when he recorded 21 tackles and seven passes defensed. On the other hand, Norman has just one season under his belt but has already started more games than Thomas with twelve compared to Thomas’ five. Both will have to improve their zone defense to earn more playing time this season.
The Panthers guaranteed starter at safety is Charles Godfrey, who has started 72 out of 73 games that he has played in during his five years in Carolina. He has recorded 259 tackles, 31 passes defensed, 11 interceptions, seven forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Carolina also still has Haruki Narkamura, who recorded 28 tackles in his first year with the Panthers last season, as well as the second year player D.J. Campbell. Campbell started four games towards the end of last season and managed to record 10 tackles.
Even with the three returning safeties, the Panthers chose not to stand pat. In the offseason, they also signed Mike Mitchell. Playing in Oakland the past four seasons, Mitchell appeared in 60 games, but only started nine. He has not shown great ball skills, but has been a strong tackler, particularly on the blitz. Mitchell's size is a factor that the Carolina secondary is otherwise lacking.
The Panthers picked up a few pieces to their defensive puzzle this offseason, but it is not known which ones will fit. Many of them still have a lot to prove. While the numbers show that defense may not automatically equate to “winning championships”, the Panthers will have to show ample defensive improvement to get them on track to reach that goal.