The Carolina Panthers were ranked 10th last year in total defense (yardage allowed) but that doesn’t impress head coach Ron Rivera.
After all, he was an All-American linebacker in college and played for a top-ranked NFL defense, the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Remember them? The team that eventually won Super Bowl XX? And who could forget the “Superbowl Shuffle”?
Yep, Coach Rivera knows the steps.
Now, as a coach, he must figure out the steps involved in putting together a top-ranked defense.
Starting with the line, the Panthers defensive-end duo is already one of, if not the best tandem in the league. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy were an unstoppable force last year. Johnson racked up 12.5 sacks and Hardy finally had the breakout year that was anticipated with 11 sacks. See Pro Football Focus for more on these two up and coming stars.
Speaking of stars, Rivera addressed the Panthers’ woes at tackle by drafting Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short back-to-back in the first two rounds. Lotulelei is already listed as the starting right defensive tackle and Short is listed 2nd on the depth chart at left defensive tackle behind Dwan Edwards.
Linebacker Jon Beason returns to play on the outside, alongside Luke Kuechly, last season’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Kuechly finished with an NFL-high 164 tackles, the first rookie to lead the league in tackles since San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis in 2007. Kuechly also had two interceptions and a sack in his first season in the league.
At strong side linebacker the steady veteran, Thomas Davis is still around doing a solid job. And the Panthers have signed former New York Giants’ linebacker, Chase Blackburn to help add depth.
The secondary has been the most suspect group of the defense, giving up 3,568 passing yards last season.
Captain Munnerlyn holds down the left corner opposite Josh Norman. Charles Godfrey is atop the depth chart at strong safety with former Raider Mike Mitchell listed as his backup.
Playing time for the free safety may be the most interesting of all with the unproven and often erratic Haruki Nakamura still listed as a starter. Undrafted rookie safety Robert Lester had a good spring with the team and may push Nakamura for playing time. Lester had 14 interceptions as part of two national championship teams at Alabama and has shown some good size (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) and instincts according to the Charlotte Observer. There has even talk of former Eagles and Rams safety Quintin Mikell joining the squad, and according to Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com, a deal could be done soon.
The new-look Panthers sure have one defender excited. Captain Munnerlyn told WFNZ-AM on Tuesday, “Nobody (is) really giving us a chance in the secondary, you know, to be great, or having any talent in the secondary. For me, being a leader in the secondary, it’s my opportunity to step up and be that guy. It’s going to be scary how good (this team) can be. And I’m excited about this year. I feel like we can be the top defense in (the NFL).”
The Panthers certainly have reason to be optimistic about this season’s defense. Whether they can live up to Munnerlyn’s expectations remains to be seen. But if Coach Rivera can figure out the steps to assembling another top-ranked defense, the Panthers may do a little “Super Bowl Shuffling” of their own.