The Carolina Panthers believe they have a defense that can return to the top of the NFL rankings this season.
After leaning on that defense in 2013, the Panthers took a step back in 2014.
The Carolina defense was 10th in yards allowed per game (339.8) but 21st in points allowed (23.4 points).
That included a few bad games like Philadelphia (45), Green Bay (38), Baltimore (38) Pittsburgh (37) and Cincinnati (37).
The coaches changed up the lineup during the bye week (11 games into the season). The defense struggled immediately after the change, giving up 31 points to Minnesota, but then the unit came together and was a top-five defense over the final four games.
Offenses averaged just 10.8 points per game in that stretch.
Not coincidentally, those four games came once Thomas DeCoud was benched.
Having one savvy, but slow veteran (Roman Harper) is okay, but not two on the field at the same time. Rookie Tre Boston, who missed the first half of the season, came on strong, including an 84-yard interception return for a TD.
Another improvement came when slow-footed Chase Blackburn was replaced by A.J. Klein.
Klein had 39 tackles as a part-time starter last season and was the leading tackler in the preseason with 20.
With Klein alongside standouts Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers looked set at linebacker, but then both of the team’s defensive draft picks this spring were linebackers: Shaq Thompson and David Mayo.
Thompson’s story sounds just like Davis in his rookie year. Is he too small for linebacker or too slow for safety? Davis has turned out pretty well, and I like Thompson’s chances.
Mayo was a tackling machine in college (13 per game) just like Kuechly, so not a bad choice to have providing depth.
As for the front four, the Panthers don’t have the Greg Hardy situation hanging over the heads anymore. Hardy won’t be back, and the team has moved on. While no one on the roster can provide that kind of pass pressure, the coaching staff feel that all three replacement ends have improved.
Kony Ealy was a defensive player of the year in college, but struggled at the start of the season. Mario Addison, a former outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, showed he can get pressure on the QB. Wes Horton was a solid run-stopper who could move inside and play tackle on passing downs.
In the preseason, Ealy had two sacks, and Addison and Horton had one each.
The middle is a strength of the team with Kawann Short, Star Lotuleilei, Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole.
Third stringer Kyle Love was a two-year starter in New England before being diagnosed with Type II diabetes and getting released.
In the backfield, Boston is teamed with the veteran Harper again at safety. Kurt Coleman, a former starter with the Eagles, joins Colin Jones as backups.
The coaches believe Josh Norman will be a shutdown corner this season. That allows free agent veteran Charles Tillman to still be effective at age 34 by covering the second-best receiver.
Second-year CB Bene Benwikere can spell Tillman on the outside, but the team likes his potential better as the nickel corner guarding the slot receiver.
While most analysts worry about the Panthers’ inability to replace Greg Hardy, I believe much of the team’s defensive success hinges on whether a 34-year-old can still cover receivers game in and game out.
If Tillman struggles, or goes down with injury like last season, the Panthers could struggle against dynamic offenses.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692 and on Twitter @SportsDudeJeff.