Dec 22, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer (3) is hurt as Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson (95) and defensive end Greg Hardy (76) defend in the first half at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers 2013 Defensive Line - The Frightful Four?

Fans of the Carolina Panthers over the past 5 years or so have known the glaringly obvious ALL too well – the defense has been soft.

There’s really no two ways about it. Aside from the run they made during the last 6 games of the 2012 season, the Carolina Panthers simply did not have the bodies or the depth to stop the run, especially. The defense entered the season strong in only one area – the outside D-line pass rush – and was weak against the run up the middle and struggled to make plays in the secondary.

With only 5 draft picks and what I had listed as 6 need positions along with negative cash flow from the Hurney era, I figured the Panthers would be able to really only address 2 or perhaps 3 impact players with draft upgrades.

That, they did! With two massive young men entering camp thanks to Dave Gettleman’s first two draft picks, it appears the Carolina Panthers organization wanted not just to try and close those easy running lanes, but slam the door closed and nail the thing shut.

May 10, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (96) walks to the field prior to the start of practice held at the Carolina Panthers practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2012 draft’s top-choice MLB and the Clark Kent to Cam Newton’s Superman, the mild-mannered Luke Kuechly had plenty of holes to stuff and tackles to make, leading the entire NFL in body slams.

2013, as I have been saying since the draft, gives the Panthers a look similar to a 1970’s-style squad. The roster screams out “POWER RUNNING/PLAY ACTION” team, while the defense looks to improve even upon their toughness the final third of 2012.

Certainly, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the two defensive tackles taken with the first two draft choices, should make running a lot more difficult and keep blockers off Kuechly, allowing him more room to roam and with his speed, instincts, and true 3-down ability with his cover skills, more opposing offenses are going to be forced to pass as those semi-truck-sized gaping holes should be reduced significantly. Teams will be getting a LOT more 2- and 3-yard gains than the 6 to 8-yard chunks they often gained last season, forcing them to the air.

The way to win THAT battle, at least these days, is to either have a fierce pass rush or 2 guys named Darrelle Revis that are both healthy and playing.

As my esteemed colleague, Casey Diffley recently wrote, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are as good a pass-rushing PAiR of 4-3 DEs as any team in the NFL has.

Oct 21, 2012; Charlotte, NC, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Felix Jones (28) runs the ball during the second quarter before being brought down by Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson (95) at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

While he went deeper into the ends aspect and closely examined those details, I’m panning the camera back for a broader, overall view.

It’s gonna need a wide-angle or fisheye lens when the Panthers drafted over 600 pounds worth of brawn on their first two picks.

D’wan Edwards will either be starting alongside Star Lotulelei OR Kawann Short will, and the odd-man out will be first off the bench in their interior D-line rotation to keep them fresh. Frank Alexander will hold down that “first off the bench in the rotation” for those ends, so the Panthers not only now have one of the more talented D-lines in the NFL, they also have room to absorb an injury with some depth there now, too.

What does all this mean?

Well, it’s important to have some playmakers on the D-line in a 4-3…much more so than in a 3-4 as the 3-4 alignment assumes the linemen are going to be absorbing blockers instead of making plays way more often than not. That’s their JOB in a 3-4 since the idea is to free up an athletic group of linebackers to make the plays.

Not so much in a 4-3.

Since a 4-3 obviously has an extra lineman at the expense of a linebacker, the onus is on the line to produce an organic pass rush without having to resort to so much blitzing. They run stunts and the linemen generally have several moves and counter-moves they employ to get to the QB. While 4-3 ends usually go about 265-280 pounds, or roughly 30-50 pounds smaller than 3-4 ends, they still need to be strong and smart enough to set the edge on running plays. Carolina has 3 that fit that mold well already in-house, allowing them to concentrate on the inside in their draft this season.

Hardy and Johnson have proven they can rush the passer. D’Wan Edwards can as a slasher/penetrator from one DT spot; Lotulelei is known to possess the ability to both be tough against the run and collapse the pocket in the QB’s face. Short is similar, just perhaps not quite so polished. Most likely as it sits now, D’Wan Edwards starts with Short actually being first off the bench, but Short has the talent to push Edwards early for that starting spot but either case is a good one. I’d rather have 2 guys worthy of a single starting spot than not!

Enemy offenses will be faced with quite a challenge now. Run the ball into the teeth of an upgraded interior line and the NFL’s leading tackler behind them as a rookie or challenge that line with your passing game.

Nov 17, 2012; Champaign, IL, USA; Purdue Boilermakers defensive tackle Kawann Short (93) during the second quarter against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Neither choice will be without peril for offenses in 2013. The Carolina Panthers really have an opportunity to be a top-ten overall defense in the NFL in all categories – vs. the run, vs. the pass, and if they control the clock with the run-first offense I’m thinking they should install, they could be a top-ten scoring defense as well.

Follow me here…

The Carolina Panthers offense, ESPECIALLY the first half of the season, were either dead last or near the bottom of the heap in time of possession. Part of this was because departed OC Rob Chudzinski seemed to abandon the running game, putting things on Newton’s shoulders….without him having much to work with other than an aging, slowing Steve Smith and underneath TE Greg Olson. They did not upgrade Cam’s group of targets much for 2013, placing hopes on Ted Ginn, jr. – a career underachiever.

That’s okay, though. I had reasonably modest expectations for their ability to acquire off-season talent, given the salary cap problems and having only 5 picks in the 2013 NFL draft. I knew they couldn’t fix everything at once, but they seemed to do the best with what little they had in draft capital.

So, if new OC Mike Shula is smart (and I think he is), he’s going to use his personnel in the way the team is best-built: pound the rock, use play-action to keep defenses honest and use Ginn and veteran Smitty to attempt to take the top off the defense on some throws while using Olsen as his underneath chains-mover.

Nothing helps the play-action pass more than a good running game.

It’ll all depends on how well those two rookie DTs can adapt. If they come in and can immediately make running a lot more of an iffy proposition for offenses, those ends can really begin to pin their ears back and rattle the other team’s QB. I don’t care if it’s Tom Brady or Peyton Manning – if he’s getting hit (even without actually being SACKED much) – they’ll start to feel pressure that isn’t quite there yet, get “happy feet,” and are more likely to make mistakes. That means turnovers, which the Panthers defense wasn’t that good at getting in 2012.

I think I see Rivera’s Evil Master Plan forming here. He’s a defensive-minded coach as we all know and he (and new GM David Gettleman) both are well aware of what the strength was of those 2 Super Bowl winning New York Giants teams. Gettleman was a part of all that before his hiring by the Carolina Panthers in 2012 as their new General Manager.

Their strength was the Giants’ defensive line…specifically in the pass rush. The “NASCAR” package – remember?

Carolina actually now has a luxury few teams have. In grabbing those talented tackles early, they’re not only stiffening the defense against the run; BOTH tackles have shown an ability in college to penetrate and press the pocket from the inside – right in front of the QB’s face.

It’s part psychological warfare, which in the NFL is every bit as effective as piling up lots of sacks. If you can get the QB feeling uncomfortable, a LOT of good things can happen on the back end. My own feeling right now is that I wish the Panthers had a playmaking safety, but don’t forget last year’s late-round pick, D.J. Campbell out of USC (the West Coast USC).

Campbell started the last month of the season, right when the defense was peaking. If he can blossom this year, then LOOK the heck OUT NFL….the Panthers are going to be a team nobody wants to play, and it’ll all start with one of the most disruptive defensive lines in football.

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