- Carolina returns much of its seventh-ranked defense (and plugged the open holes) and with Washington now in charge, opponents should expect the same consistency its seen for the last several seasons
CHARLOTTE — Eric Washington is well aware that the Panthers’ last two defensive coordinators went on to become one of 32 head coaches in the NFL. After six seasons of guiding the defense, Sean McDermott became the Bills head coach after the 2016 season. And after just one season as coordinator, Steve Wilks followed suit and took the job in Arizona where he now helms the Cardinals.
It’s easy to think Be the Panthers defensive coordinator, do a good job and you, too, will have one of the top 32 jobs in the league. But just because recent history is on his side, Washington, who was head coach Ron Rivera’s obvious choice for the coordinator job after seven years as the team’s defensive line coach, isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I make no assumptions that because we had two guys leave here in consecutive years from a coordinator role with the Carolina Panthers and assume head coaching positions that that will be my path,” says Washington after June’s minicamp. “I’m as focused as I can possibly be on helping the players we have.
“Now having said that, I am excited about the prospect of being a head coach in the National Football League. Very excited about that. But I won’t shortchange our players, and I won’t shortchange the opportunity that I have and the fulfillment of that long-term or short-term goal.”
The Carolina defense, ranked seventh in the league last season, returns its entire front seven, minus defensive tackle Star Lotulelei—but the Panthers brought in Dontari Poe in free agency to fill that hole. After finishing third in the league last season in sacks with 50, the Panthers return all but two-and-a-half sacks of that this season. Under Washington, Carolina’s sack production has been the bes tin the NFL since 2012. Of Carolina’s league-leading 280 sacks since that year, the defensive line has created 219 of those to also be tops in the NFL. Last year Carolina got 11 sacks each from Mario Addison and future Hall-of-Famer Julius Peppers.
That consistency up front helped Washington land his gig. But it’s also that consistency that left Washington, Rivera and some of the defensive line miffed about an apparent snub in a recent off-season list ranking.
NFL.com ranked the top eight defensive lines in the league but did not include the Panthers. Taking the top spots, in order, were: Jacksonville, Philadelphia, L.A. Rams, Minnesota, L.A. Chargers, Houston, Denver and Tampa Bay. Carolina couldn’t even crack the four-team honorable mentions list.
Addison lamented the omission to the team website. Washington sent out a few subtweets. Rivera, unprompted, brought up the list on the last day of minicamp. To this writer, the reaction to the summertime list was surprising. But Washington wouldn’t go so far as to call it bulletin-board material.
“I’m aware of it and I’m aware of how it affects our players. Anything that they’re affected by affects me,” Washington says. “We realize a couple of things. Number one we get no credit for what we’ve done in the past. That’s practical. You start over every year. Anything that we did last year is great and establishes a template for how you want to play, but you start over.
“The one thing we can’t do going into training camp is dwell on that. Our reputation will be a minute-to-minute, day-to-day proposition, and we embrace that.”
One of the big changes last season was how much more aggressive the Panthers were when it came to blitzing. McDermott was more judicious with when he sent players (especially All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly), blitzing on just 25.3% of passing plays in 2016 according to Pro Football Focus. Wilks blew that out to 44% last season (second-highest in the NFL), and Washington appears to be on the same track.
“I think Eric has the same mindset as Steve [Wilks], which is kind of true to form because for whatever reason defensive line coaches tend to be a little more aggressive,” Rivera said. “I guess that’s because they always want those big guys going forward.”
True, Washington says.
“It starts with a desire to create negative plays. We desire to get an offense off-schedule. That really starts with how our defensive line plays,” Washington says. “Regardless of how many people we send or don’t send, those guys are going to attack and be disruptive. That’s the why. The how just comes philosophically with what we have available to us. We feel we have the best front seven in the National Football League starting with our front four. Whether we attack an offense with four guys or we send a fifth guy, we feel we have guys we can really help us and generate some of the things we need to be an efficient defense.”
The front seven, anchored by Kuechly, is undoubtedly one of the best in the league. The secondary…not so much. Cornerback James Bradberry is the strength of the backend, and he’ll likely be joined there with safeties Mike Adams and Da’Norris Searcy in Week 1. The other corner spot is up for grabs among Kevon Seymour, rookie Donte Jackson and Ross Cockrell. Last year Carolina ranked in the bottom-third of the league in interceptions with 10, and Kuechly led the team with three of those.
Washington expects more ball production from the secondary, but the pass rush will also help dictate that. One major difference in the Washington-led defense that will be seen this summer is a new “circuit” the group is working. For years Carolina has had three defensive circuits for all defenders: tackling, pursuit and takeaways. This year Washington has added a pass rush circuit, and it’s not limited to just linemen.
“My pass rush expertise and the things we’ve been able to do in affecting the quarterback, we took that and expanded that to the entire defense,” Washington says. “If we send a corner or safety, we need that person to affect the quarterback. They have to turn into the fifth rusher, and they have to be very proficient with rush fundamentals.”
The Panthers’ defense finally belongs to Washington, but he eschews ego when it comes to putting his stamp on this group. Yes, it will be fresh, and yes, they’ll do some new things in 2018 that division opponents haven’t seen before.
“But at the same time,” Washington says, “you want to maintain an identity. We have an identity, and not I’m interested in changing that for the sake of change.”
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