10/04/12 — Panthers' 'D' on shaky ground

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Panthers' 'D' on shaky ground

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

A coach once told me, "when a sponge is squeezed what is in it comes out."

With a win against the unbeaten Atlanta Falcons hanging in the balance last Sunday, the Carolina Panthers' true colors came out.

Rather than attempt to put the game away and convert a fourth-and-one from its own 45-yard line with a 28-27 lead and a little more than a minute remaining in the game, Carolina elected to punt.

The result was a blown coverage by Panthers' safety Haruki Nakamura on Matt Ryan's 59-yard pass to Roddy White. Matt Bryant's game-winning, 40-yard field goal sent the Panthers to a 30-28 loss and a 1-3 record.

The heartbreaking defeat exposed two glaring concerns for Carolina -- a "play not to lose" mentality and a defense that is two drafts away from being able to compete with the elite offenses in the NFL. Panthers' head coach Ron Rivera's decision not to attempt to put Atlanta away on fourth-and-one wreaked of former head coach John Fox's conservative mentality.

Carolina rushed for 121 yards against the Falcons and averaged six yards a carry. Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and it is hard to believe that with the game on the line, Newton would not have found a way to gain a yard or more.

Tailbacks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who have both rushed for over 1,000 yards in previous seasons, or fullback Mike Tolbert, would have been viable options on fourth down.

An aggressive, play-to-win mentality is what wins games in the NFL. Until Carolina adopts this mindset, its fans can expect to see more head-scratching decisions.

A look at Carolina's recent draft history sheds plenty of light on its woes in the secondary. Of the Panthers' 17 combined draft picks in 2010 and 2011, just two of those players -- Greg Hardy and Sione Fua -- play on the defensive line and are currently on the active roster.

Carolina did draft four defensive players in 2012 and two of those selections, Josh Norman and D.J. Campbell, are both defensive backs. Ironically, Norman was out of position along with Nakamura, on Ryan's pass to White late in the loss in Atlanta.

The Panthers rank 22nd in the league against the pass and their opponents are averaging 259 yards a game through the air. Carolina sacked Ryan seven times on Sunday and the Panthers are tied for seventh in the NFL with 12 sacks.

Getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks is not Carolina's problem. It is what happens on the plays when the Panthers' front seven does not record a sack that has put added pressure on a suspect secondary.

Carolina center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer prior to the start of the season declaring that the Panthers would win the Super Bowl. Until Carolina commits to improving its defense through the draft and plays to win and not to lose, Kalil's promise will continue to ring hollow.