Ron Rivera made changes to his defensive coaching staff on Monday, relieving defensive line coach Brady Hoke and assistant secondary coach Jeff Imamura of their duties and assuming the role of defensive playcaller – perhaps the biggest change that was made was the movement of first-year defensive coordinator Eric Washington to provide leadership for the front seven while Rivera focused on the secondary, which had struggled over the course of the season – the Panthers were in the bottom third of the NFL in terms of pass defense while their rush defense remained in the top five.
Washington excelled as the defensive line coach for the past seven years under Rivera, and he’ll get a chance to focus on the group that had 40 sacks last season and only 20 through 12 games of 2018; the defensive coordinator spoke to the media on Thursday for the first time since the changes to the coaching staff on a multitude of topics.
Here were some of the things he had to say ahead of a must-win game for the 6-6 Panthers in Cleveland:
Opening Statement: I realize, ladies and gentleman, that I’m anticipating several questions about the realignment of our coaching staff and how some of my responsibilities have been adjusted, have been tweaked, but before we talk about that, what I want to communicate is that in spite of the adjustments that have been made, my commitment to being the best possible resource for our football team – our defense, our coaching staff – remains the same. We’re going to work our tails off to put together a great plan against the Cleveland Browns. We had two good days of practice and I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen from the players. I will continue to put forth the absolute best effort, regardless of what I’m being asked to do.
On Monday hearing about the changes in the coaching staff: Once I was notified that there were going to be changes, that was a tough set of circumstances; those men put forth – they did a good job, they worked very hard and they contributed to the things that we had done this year in terms of the success that we had. Coach made that decision and I respect and support that decision and I look forward to the next chapters in those individuals’ careers as professionals.
How he feels like these changes in his role may affect him going forward as defensive coordinator: I feel like I’m focused on what we have to do; I’m not worried or concerned about next week – I’m focused on today, I’m focused on tomorrow, having a great practice and doing everything we can to come up with a win against Cleveland. My feelings, what will happen with my career individually, moving forward, is not a concern of mine right now.
On Cleveland’s Offense: The challenge that Baker presents is a challenge that you find with all mobile quarterbacks; he’s an individual that has good pocket awareness, he has good quickness in the pocket – he can extend plays. It’s challenging sometimes, getting a guy like that on the ground. What you saw last week against Houston, while they didn’t sack him, he was pressured into three or four interceptions and I think he lost a fumble and so the pressure that they were able to get – the coverage and the pressure together, those things worked together to force turnovers that were timely.
If so many first-year assistants caused issues: We felt good about what we were doing as a coaching staff; we felt good about the process that we went through every single day and as we went through the weeks during the offseason and the preseason in terms of getting our defense ready to play. We felt good about that; we functioned as a staff in the way that I think you have to – what happened in terms of some of the uneven play is not just unique to the Carolina Panthers and it didn’t have anything to do with headsets and people being first-year coaches in the NFL. There are things that we did over the first 12 weeks that I’m really proud of, but at the end of the day, we have to be consistent and we have to put ourselves in position to win football games and there were some times that we needed to close a gap with that, so a decision has been made. It’s been made, I believe, for the betterment of what we need to do moving forward, and you trust that.
If he regretted particular calls throughout the season: There’s no perfect call when you’re calling an NFL game. There’s no perfect defense; the best defense is one that’s executed the way it was designed for that particular situation. Certainly, while there’s no perfect call, there’s always calls that you’d like to have back – that’s just part of the game. You put together a plan and there are several things that you’d like to see done in that situation; calls, options that you have and I feel good about the calls that we made – that I made – and I feel good about the calls that were made on Sunday when I didn’t make the call. At the end of the day, I’m not evaluating who’s doing what, it’s whether or not we’re executing what is supposed to be done and the players are in position to understand those things.
Does he still think he can be successful as a defensive coordinator? I absolutely believe that we’re going to be successful as a defense. I retain a lot of confidence in myself; I know who I am, I know what I bring to the table and I know that I’m a valued member of this organization and this coaching staff, so all of those things remain the same.
On the decision to have Vernon Butler be a healthy scratch and use Wes Horton on the inside: The decision on who dresses and who doesn’t dress is Coach Rivera’s, as far as Vernon is concerned. But as far as Wes, his short-area quickness is a benefit; we have talked about trying to rush protections and generate pressure with a four-man rush, so we liked the matchup with Wes inside; he’s versatile and can play inside, he can play outside – we wanted to take a look at that and see if we could benefit from that.