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The Panthers Defense Is About to Face Its First Real Test

Carolina has jumped to a 3-0 record thanks to one of the best defenses in the NFL. But they’ve also taken advantage of inexperienced quarterbacks—will their success change when they face top-tier passers?

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

If you had the Carolina Panthers defense leading the league in all of these categories through three weeks of the season, I have some questions about next week’s lottery numbers I’d like to ask you.

The Panthers are perhaps the league’s most surprising 3-0 team, and while the mistake-free play of new QB Sam Darnold deserves its time in the sun, the defense is the real story in Carolina. Captained by second-year coordinator Phil Snow, the Panthers have wreaked havoc this season, never allowing more than 14 points in a contest. The question that hangs over every early-season trend—especially the surprising ones—looms here as well: Will this continue?

If we autopsy the offenses left in the Panthers’ wake, we can add color to this September dominance. In Week 1, the Panthers faced rookie Zach Wilson and the New York Jets. The Jets scored 14 offensive points on the back of a few explosive passes to Corey Davis and a fourth-and-8 conversion late in the fourth quarter, when the game was nearly decided. This two-touchdown, one-interception, six-sack game has actually wound up being Wilson’s best—over the last two contests against the Patriots and Broncos, he has a 0:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and nine total sacks.

In Week 2, the Panthers drew Jameis Winston and the Saints offense after New Orleans’s stunning win over the Green Bay Packers. Unlike Green Bay, the Panthers put the clamps on Alvin Kamara and the Saints’ devastating rushing attack, which was missing star center Erik McCoy after an injury he sustained in Week 1. Winston threw two picks—one at the end of the first half, another at the end of the second half—and took four sacks while completing just 50 percent of his passes.

And in Week 3, the Panthers grabbed another rookie quarterback in Davis Mills, a third-round pick who was thrust into the starting role for the Texans after an injury to Tyrod Taylor—and they got him on a short week of prep to boot. Mills arguably had the best week of any quarterback the Panthers had faced. He led a two-minute-drill touchdown drive, completed 68 percent of his passes, avoided turnovers, and … yep, took four sacks. This Panthers defense can get after the quarterback.

The Panthers’ defense isn’t just getting after the quarterback with top-tier edge rusher Brian Burns, who has contributed three sacks and 11 total pressures of his own. Free agent addition Haason Reddick is picking up where he left off last season with the Cardinals, and is leading the Panthers in both total pressures (13) and sacks (six)—his six sacks is tied with Cleveland Browns edge defender Myles Garrett for the league-best number. Other, quieter free agent additions in defensive linemen Morgan Fox (10 pressures) and DaQuan Jones (nine pressures) round out an effective front four—but they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Seventeen different Panthers defenders have registered at least one pressure so far this season. By comparison, the Indianapolis Colts have generated only 12 team pressures altogether according to Pro Football Reference.

Snow’s defense has generated pressures on 45 percent of opposing dropbacks, more than 10 percent better than second place (Buffalo Bills at 34 percent). And they’re doing it with dynamic blitz packages. Carolina’s blitzing at the third-highest rate among all teams this season, in the model of defenses like Baltimore and Minnesota: with tons of bodies on the line of scrimmage.

Take this sack against Davis Mills during last week’s Thursday night game. By pushing linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. (4) up onto the center, Carolina gets Houston to protect against the four defensive linemen and Carter—five offensive linemen, five dangerous rushers on the first level of the defense. Seems easy enough.

But when Carter (and Haason Reddick) bail and Shaq Thompson (7) comes in, the center is left blocking air, and left tackle Laremy Tunsil is stuck choosing between two evils. He takes the innermost rusher, which is a good move, but leaves Mills one-on-one with an unobstructed Brian Burns. That’s a win for the defense.

This is a simple idea that can get more complex in execution. By constantly rotating whom they rush and where they come from, the Panthers can generate “blitzes” that don’t actually have more than four rushers. With top-flight athletes like Reddick and Burns on the edge (don’t forget that Burns worked out as an off-ball linebacker at the 2019 combine, and that Reddick was a defensive back when he walked on to Temple) the Panthers can still drop seven players into zone coverage while finding a free rusher. This is called a “simulated pressure,” in that it simulates the effect of a blitz—bringing one more rusher than the offense can block—while still having enough players in coverage.

Here’s a good example. Early in the first quarter against Wilson, the Panthers showed pressure from Wilson’s left once again with Carter (4) and defensive back Myles Hartsfield (38). As the deep safety Sean Chandler (34) lurks over that side of the field, it seems he’ll be responsible for the slot receiver in man coverage after Hartsfield blitzes.

This is all a ruse. In reality, Shaq Thompson is the only additional rusher, while Carter, Hartsfield, and Reddick (43) are all going to peel off and drop into coverage. But the offensive line is already sliding left, and Wilson’s eyes are pointed in that direction, as he intends to throw a hot route and replace the incoming blitzers—that’s quarterbacking 101. Right-tackle George Fant does his job by taking the innermost rusher, but again, Burns is left unblocked for the sack.

The beauty here is that the Panthers’ would-be blitzers dropped into underneath zones right where Wilson was taught to throw the ball. You can see him start to throw, then clutch the football as he realizes he’d be delivering right into the Panthers’ underneath-zone droppers. This is tried-and-true Cover 3—the deep safety, Chandler, spun back to his deep-middle responsibilities just as Reddick and Hartsfield took the underneath zones. The coverage likely wouldn’t have held up if Wilson had time, but that’s the beauty of the simulated pressure: When it works, he doesn’t have time at all.

The best part of simulated pressure? You can get real wacky with it. I won’t pretend to tell you I know the rules for what to do when both defensive tackles drop into coverage, but hey—looks like Mills doesn’t, either.

Simulated pressures are one thing, but the rate at which Snow is throwing true blitzes on top of these quasi-blitzes is something else. The Panthers have wild athletes all across the first two levels of their defense and a defensive coordinator willing to unleash them. This is chaos, directed.

And this week, they have the chaos tamer. Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys.

When Prescott debuted with the Cowboys in 2016, he played behind a legendary offensive line—and as that offensive line naturally regressed, he was challenged to improve his play against pressure and take on more responsibility managing the blitz. Boy, has he delivered. Over the five games Prescott played last season, he was arguably the best quarterback in the league when blitzed: Per Pro Football Focus, he completed 78 percent of his passes when adjusting for drops (ninth best), totaled 9.8 yards an attempt (second best), and took four sacks. In 2019, on a full season, his adjusted completion percentage when blitzed was 74 percent, he delivered passes at 8.7 yards an attempt, and only took five sacks all year. Prescott’s command at the line of scrimmage, field vision, and quick processing have vaunted him into the league’s top echelon of quarterbacks.

This season, Dak’s faced two of the league’s least-blitzing teams in the Los Angeles Chargers (18 percent) and Philadelphia Eagles (10 percent). A majority of the blitzes he’s faced came from Todd Bowles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the league’s leader in blitz rate (40 percent). Prescott looked less than 100 percent in that season-opening game, as he was struggling to drive the ball downfield and hit tight windows.

But Prescott’s looked healthier over recent weeks, and the mental strength remains. The Carolina defense ate up two rookies making their first career starts, both playing behind suspect offensive lines, along with Jameis Winston—perennially one of the most-sacked QBs in the NFL, given his play style. Dak and this Cowboys offense are different, and if Carolina lives by the pressure, it’s likely to get burned.

That’s the cost of running pressure packages: When they don’t land, you become susceptible to explosive passing plays. The Panthers’ passing defense is wicked in almost every metric imaginable, but they’re dead average in explosive passing play rate at 8 percent. When zone defenders are flying around to get to their landmarks, they can struggle to settle in place for tackles or properly space routes. Responsibilities become muddled, and chunk YAC gains and downfield windows both open up—so long as the offensive line and quarterback have enough time to execute.

While pressure packages define the Panthers’ defensive philosophy, Carolina has been able to settle in coverage and still win. Their yards-surrendered-per coverage-snap is a mere 3.2 when they are unable to get pressure, which is the best mark in the league; when sending five or more rushers, that same number drops to 2.3, tied with the Broncos for the league best. But critically, rookie cornerback Jaycee Horn is out for this upcoming contest with the Cowboys, as he’s been placed on injured reserve with multiple broken bones in his foot.

Horn was Carolina’s top man-cover defender. Snow could play him inside or outside, as dictated by matchup, and protect fellow starting cornerback Donte Jackson from targetable matchups given his size disadvantage. While Horn has played mightily well, just like the rest of the Panthers secondary, they’d yet to be really tested. The Saints and Texans have bottom-five WR corps in the league; the Jets, who were without Jamison Crowder, likely are there as well. The Panthers needed Horn to be the player they drafted—the player he’d seemed to be over the first few weeks—when facing off against CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper. Now they’re in the same spot as they were last season: working with major weaknesses at cornerback.

Reinforcements are coming. The Panthers traded for Jacksonville CB C.J. Henderson this past week, though getting him on the field with a one-week turnaround seems unlikely; veteran CB A.J. Bouye should play after missing the first three weeks due to suspension, joining veteran CB Rashaan Melvin on the outside. But these defensive backs don’t look like a group that can hold their own in man coverage against Cooper, Lamb, and Prescott.

What remains to be seen is how Snow responds. This defense took everyone by surprise in large part because Snow didn’t call his unit this way last season at all. The Panthers were bottom-10 in blitz rate last season and dedicated to heavy zone coverage. They led the league in 2020 with 124 downs in which they rushed only three players, dropping eight into zone—this season, they have run one such play. Snow himself said this week that their schematic changes have a lot to do with the additions they’ve made on defense, and that what they’ve been over the last few weeks is what they want to be permanently—but with Horn shelved, it’s tough to imagine they can hang in coverage behind all of their rush looks. They’ve barely been tested thus far, and with Horn’s absence, Sunday’s upcoming test just got that much tougher.

The Panthers may not hang among the top NFL defenses throughout the course of the season. While their sharp improvement is admirable, they’re still young, and thriving off chaos. That works well against inexperienced QBs, but their biggest challenges are still to come. They get their first gut check on Sunday against Prescott and the Cowboys—if they pass it, this unit may just have enough firepower to push their team over the playoff hump.