Panthers could switch to 3-4 defense at some point
The Panthers are thinking about changing up how they line up on defense.
Carolina showed a new wrinkle on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, lining up in a 3-4 defense for the first time under new coach Ron Rivera. It was only for three plays, but the 3-4 look could become a more permanent Carolina fixture down the road.
It wouldn't be a surprise. Rivera ran the 3-4 last year working as the defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers and that unit finished first in the league in total defense.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said it's too early to know if he'll use the 3-4 scheme next season, noting that might include some personnel changes to better fit the defense.
''We have to see how comfortable the players are and also you look at your opponents in the division and outside of the division,'' McDermott said.
However, McDermott made it clear the Panthers would like to move toward becoming a full-time 3-4 defense.
''Ron and I have gotten together on it over the summer and it's something we wanted to evolve to, so we're going to have that in the game plan (this year) whether we use it or not,'' McDermott said.
McDermott believes the 3-4 alignment might be the best way to defend NFL teams in the coming years because of the type of athletes coming out of college.
''You're seeing more hybrid type guys with the tight ends, which are more wideouts now,'' McDermott said. ''You're seeing the same thing on the defensive side with 3-4 type defenses. You take a defensive end that isn't a true defensive end in terms of (weight) and they're going to let him come off the edge once in awhile.''
On Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers lined up in the 3-4 look for three plays.
They used Ron Fields at nose tackle sandwiched in between ends Terrell McClain and Greg Hardy. Dan Connor and James Anderson were the middle linebackers, allowing Charles Johnson and Antwan Applewhite to stand up at outside linebacker.
Applewhite, who was brought in two weeks ago because the flexibility he offers, played outside linebacker last year for Rivera in San Diego, but he's one of the few Carolina defenders who have played that style.
''It's a new concept here, so it's something you have to rep to make sure everybody is on the same page,'' Applewhite said. ''The couple of plays were ran it, it did all right. One play they got a big run off of it when a guy wasn't in the right gap. That's something where you look at the film and then fix it in practice.''
Applewhite believes the Panthers have what it takes to run the 3-4 scheme.
''I feel like we have the personnel here to do it,'' Applewhite said. ''You just need outside linebackers that can set the edge and disrupt. Charles Johnson is a multi-talented player. It's something he should be able to do quite well.''
The Panthers added two big nose tackles after the start of the season, signing free agent Ron Fields and claiming Frank Kearse off waivers. That helps give the Panthers some flexibility up front.
''We have some players to work with there and that's a good sign for us,'' McDermott said.
Johnson, the team's highest-paid player and leader in sacks, said he thought it was ''cool'' to get a chance to stand up and rush from the outside.
''You get to see things just by standing up,'' he said. ''It was all right. We only ran it a couple of times, but you can rush the passer a little bit better just by standing up because you can see it better.''
So how much will the Panthers use the 3-4 defense over the final 10 games?
McDermott, whose coaching background is in the 4-3 defense, said that largely depends on how the Panthers progress with learning the scheme and whether or not it fits their personnel.
''I know he feels very confident in the 3-4 and what it brings to the table and knows it's strengths and weaknesses and that's part of the reason quite frankly that I came down here (from Philadelphia) so we could merge our systems together,'' McDermott said. ''And I think in due time you will see that and you will see the effectiveness of both the 4-3 and 3-4.''