01/04/12 — Stevens: Panthers' defense must improve in 2012

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Stevens: Panthers' defense must improve in 2012

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on January 4, 2012 1:48 PM

The final game of the Carolina Panthers' 2011-12 campaign was four quarters of a long, hard look in the mirror at a glaring weakness.

New Orleans' exposed Carolina's overmatched defense to the tune of 45 points, 617 yards of offense and at least one reception by nine different Saints. The Panthers' defensive deficiencies have been a problem all season as injuries depleted what was expected to a strong group of linebackers. Starters and team captains Jon Beason and Thomas Davis were both lost to season-ending injuries.

Execution has been just as much of an issue as personnel. Twice on Sunday, New Orleans' quarterback Drew Brees burned Carolina for touchdown passes with the Panthers in zone coverage. Safety Sherrod Martin offered zero help over the top to cornerback Chris Gamble on a 42-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston just before halftime. Brees completed a similar touchdown pass thanks to a busted coverage later in the game.

For all the strides Carolina made offensively this year, only four teams allowed more yard per game than the Panthers' defense. Carolina ranks 24th in the NFL in pass defense and 25th against the run. Opponents scored 26.8 points per game against the Panthers, which was 27th in the league. The 429 points Carolina gave up this season are the most in franchise history.

Carolina surrendered 30 or more points eight times this year and opponents converted on third-down 42 percent of the time, a number that ranked 27th in the NFL. The Panthers were 1-5 this in games against teams that reached the playoffs.

Rookie quarterback Cam Newton proved many people, including myself, wrong setting a rookie record with 4,051 passing yards and 706 rushing yards. The former Auburn standout threw for 21 touchdowns and rushed for 14 more. Newton became the first player in league history with 4,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in the same season.

Carolina averaged 25 points and nearly 400 yards of offense this year and after finishing dead last in the league in both categories a season ago. Imagine that type of offensive success coupled with a defense that held up its end of the bargain. With a top-10 pick in April's NFL draft at their disposal the Panthers desperately need to focus on defense.

With all the hype a rookie quarterback and his Superman touchdown celebration brought to Charlotte this season, the resounding theme for the Carolina Panthers' quest to improve is simple -- defense still wins championships.