CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Much of the offseason focus on the Carolina Panthers has been on the trade for quarterback Sam Darnold and return of running back Christian McCaffrey from injuries that forced him to miss 13 games in 2020.
But don’t forget about the defense.
Carolina quietly has put together one of the more versatile units in the NFL, one that can morph from its base 4-3 into a 3-4 or even the 3-5-3 that sacked Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers five times last season without having to substitute personnel.
“You know, there’s the saying defense wins championships," defensive end/outside linebacker Brian Burns said. “Hopefully, we’re going to put on a show this year with this defense we have. I’m excited, as if you can’t tell."
So is second-year player Jeremy Chinn, who will play more safety with the ability to move to outside linebacker instead of vice versa as he did a season ago when he was a candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“I envision us taking big strides compared to last season," Chinn said. “We have all the things we need here as a defense."
Coordinator Phil Snow says the defense is “way ahead" of where it was last year. He expects to see marked improvement, admitting talent-wise the Panthers have “some good pieces."
Can it be a top-10 defense? It’s way too early to tell.
“The big thing is, I’ve got to utilize the talent here," Snow said. “So we do some things different than we did a year ago. So we’ve added some stuff, thrown out some stuff. ... So this is a fun time."
The fun for Snow began in free agency when the team added edge rusher Haason Reddick, a player he coached at Temple and one who had 12.5 sacks a year ago for Arizona.
Putting Reddick opposite Burns, who led Carolina in sacks last season with nine, will make it tough for opponents to double-team Burns.
The fun continued in the first round of the draft when South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn was taken with the eighth pick. Horn gives Snow the flexibility to play more man coverage than last season, when he didn’t have a corner that could match up with some of the best receivers in the NFC South.
“I asked him [during a pre-draft interview] about covering Julio [Jones], Mike Evans," said Snow, who won’t have to worry about facing Jones twice a year since Atlanta recently traded the Pro Bowl receiver to Tennessee. “I won’t tell you what he said, but it was like, ‘Hey, let’s go.’
“It wasn’t fake bravado. . . . He looks like he’s been in the NFL for a long time. He just fits right in and plays."
Having Horn also gives Snow more flexibility to switch schemes without having to worry about mismatches. Having so many players with positional flexibility could give opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks nightmares.
Burns and Reddick can switch from end in a 4-3 to outside linebacker in a 3-4. Chinn can go from safety to outside linebacker to corner. Fox can play end or tackle. Bouye can play several spots in the secondary.
“When you bring in a personnel group, they know what kind of coverage you’re in," Snow said. “But when you can play one group and do a number of different things, it gives you a huge advantage."
Snow went into last season believing his defense would be primarily a 4-3 unit. But because of injuries, particularly on the defensive front, and not having a shutdown corner, Carolina played 4-3 a little more than 9% of the time. The Panthers played nickel 51.3% of the time and dime (six defensive backs) 37.4% of the time.
Out of 1,022 defensive snaps, Carolina was in a true 4-3 scheme for 95 plays and a true 3-4 for two plays. The 3-5-3 that held Rodgers in check the second half of a 24-16 loss became the norm.
“We can be dominant," said cornerback Donte Jackson, who was hampered by injuries last season.
The Panthers never reached that point last season, but they showed improvement with one of the youngest defenses in the league. Starting with a shutout of Detroit in Week 11, they allowed 21.7 points over the final six games. That ranked 12th during that span.
Their sack percentage went from 2.8% the first 10 games to 7.4%, ranking seventh in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
With more pressure, Carolina improved in a lot of key areas, particularly getting off the field on third down. Opponents were successful 55.3% of the time during the first 10 games and 39.5% the final six.
Adding the potential for more pressure was an emphasis during the offseason. Adding weight on key players such as linebacker Shaq Thompson, now 10 pounds heavier, and Burns also should be a factor in improvement.
“The talent level is there, man," Jackson said. “We brought in some guys that can definitely do a lot of great things."
Having a full offseason of on-the-field work also is a benefit. Snow and his staff didn’t meet most of the players in person until training camp last year due to the pandemic.
“It depends on us," Snow said. “I'm glad they’re excited, because they look at each other and say, ‘Hey, we can be really good.’ With that belief, you have a chance in the league."