- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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Coming off a disappointing 2007 where they ranked 16th in team defense and an offseason where they traded away massive defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and did not replace him through free agency or the draft, it's easy to see why there were concerns about the defense heading into the 2008 season.
But so far, the Panthers are doing just fine. They've faced some of the best running backs in the league -- LaDainian Tomlinson, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner and Larry Johnson -- and have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher. They now rank third in rushing defense and fourth in overall defense.
Sometimes simple is better. Offseason changes to the Panthers scheme has allowed the players to play faster and think less.
Up front, the linemen are slanting more often and showing better quickness into gaps to take away an offense's blocking angles. With good first-step quickness upfield, the Panthers are disrupting offensive blocking schemes with penetration and taking away an offensive lineman's ability to create leverage or power out of his stance. By beating them to the spot, the defense can play on the other side of the line and make it easier for the linebackers to read and fill from the second level
Good pad level and technique are always essential for good defensive line play and the Panthers are getting this consistently with their current strategy and techniques. They also are showing better range and giving extra effort to chase to the sideline or from the backside.
The linebackers are benefiting from dealing with less contact because the defensive line is taking away angles and forcing offensive linemen to engage them first. The linebackers can flow aggressively to the ball without having to analyze a ton of assignment adjustments when the offense shifts strengths, empties the backfield or incorporates a lot of motion before the snap. Some schemes have major adjustments for linebackers to process and communicate to others on the field, which can put as much of a premium on their mental ability as their athletic ability.
Obviously all of this has to happen quickly and cohesively to work. But it's working well in Carolina. Just ask those big name running backs that have been stuffed this season.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.