The coach, the players, the mystery: The Carolina Panthers defense so far

After two preseason games, what do we know about this Carolina Panthers defense?

Donte Jackson
Donte Jackson / Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
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Carolina Panthers defensive concerns

I do have concerns with the Carolina Panthers' defense. This is despite gushing over all the players and aspects of the scheme that I’m so enthralled with.

My concerns come twofold – the run defense and secondary depth. The depth concern is one that I feel slightly less inundated by today than I did prior to training camp.

Keith Taylor Jr. and C.J. Henderson each put together positive camps. With durability concerns for both starting corners, they could be asked to step up in a big way. The Panthers also just recently signed free agent cornerback Troy Hill, who has familiarity with Ejiro Evero and defensive backs coach Jonathan Cooley from their time together with the Los Angeles Rams.

Hill is a player that has produced in spurts and has a track record playing the more classic nickel position, lined up with the more traditionally quick slot receivers.

Interestingly enough, Hill’s addition brings me directly to the run defense.

To make room for the new defensive back, the Panthers waived second-year nose tackle Marquan McCall. Despite being the starter for the first preseason game, and playing well in the second, the undrafted free agent out of Kentucky apparently fell out of favor within a week and ended up on the wrong end of general manager Scott Fitterer’s latest transaction.

Defensive linemen Raequan Williams and Taylor Stallworth have made an impression on the coaches with their flash plays thus far this preseason. Neither player has the skillset and mass that McCall carried with him, however.

The Panthers staff praised McCall for his ability to stuff gaps and occupy blockers as a classic zero technique nose tackle, freeing up the second-level defenders to torpedo around the field in pursuit of the football. This is a role now undoubtedly vacant.

The 2022 Panthers were a slightly below middle-of-the-pack run defense, finishing as the 19th ranked according to Pro Football Reference. Yetur-Gross Matos and rookie third-round pick D.J. Johnson are being tasked with developing as outside linebackers and providing a boost to the run defense. A task that could make fans uneasy.

I don’t believe the release of McCall singlehandedly dooms this unit. I do think that he provided a much-needed element and I’ll be watching closely as Carolina travels to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1 of the regular season, as Arthur Smith's men figure to be a very run-heavy offense.

To put a bow on all of this, I’ll leave it this way… the preseason defense we’ve been subjected to is not the defense we should have to deal with come September and beyond. This 2023 Panthers defense should be innovative, aggressive, and effective.

The pieces are in place, for the most part, to see this unit serve as the catalyst if the Panthers are to find themselves exceeding overall expectations and making a playoff push.

Don’t smash the panic button – not yet at least.