Eric Washington wasn’t ready to be a defensive coordinator.
This isn’t his fault, as the step up from defensive line coach to being a defensive coordinator was always going to be a large one for a coach with no previous experience working with coverages; something that likely wasn’t aided by a number of changes among the defensive position coaches including a new secondary coach, new linebackers coach and more. Rivera seemed aware of this, and based on what players have said it seems as if he was reasonable involved in the defense all season, but yet he still let Washington go out and call plays on game days until finally demoting him back to front seven coach in all but name.
However, even if Washington was completely ready and had a well-designed defensive scheme ready to go, there are always going to be teething troubles. No team starts the season already perfect on either offense or defense, and what determines the eventual champion is usually not how good you are to start the season but rather how effectively you are able to fix your issues as the season goes on, and this is where the Panthers have really come up short, especially on defense.
All season, the Panthers have used a lot of off-coverage, have carried over last season’s increased use of man coverage and have continued to blitz as a way of generating pressure; while all of these things can be effective when used correctly, combining them leads to some really bad outcomes. Blitzing in man coverage in general is a highly risky strategy, as it minimizes the number of help defenders which creates easy throws for the quarterback with all coverage players left on their own islands. Not only that, but by combining blitzes with man coverage, you take away one of the real advantages of getting early pressure – by forcing the quarterback to rush through his progressions he makes a misread and throws a pass to a defender. In man coverage, the defenders are looking not at the quarterback but at their receivers and so are not going to be able to convert most of these opportunities in the same way they might be able to in zone coverage. The zone blitz is a foundation block of the Sean McDermott defense; which ranked fifth in interception rate, third in yards-per-attempt and first in yards-per-completion with inferior defensive personnel in Buffalo; the Panthers would be well-advised to go back to this as a building block of what they do defensively.
That, however, is more of a scheme philosophy issue – what the Washington defense really exposed was the Panthers lack of effective defensive quality control coaching.
The role of a quality control coach is to recognize issues with a defense and to report them back to the coaches in order for them to be rectified; this can either be technique issues with a player or scheme concerns which are open for exploitation. For the Panthers, this is most relevant to their overuse of off coverage, in particular in combination with man coverage. There is nothing wrong with off coverage from time to time, but when defensive backs are consistently ten yards off the ball in man coverage, it just makes it too easy for the offense to get the ball out quickly without the risk of a flat defender – with the defender so far off the line of scrimmage the offense is then guaranteed five or so yards with the potential for a longer gain if the defensive back isn’t able to make the solo tackle in space. What is more, if the defensive back is aware of this, there is always going to be the temptation to dive on these short quick passes, making them vulnerable to double moves to create separation on deeper routes as we saw multiple times during this six-game losing streak.
Over the first couple of months of the season, this is something that offenses were able to capitalize on from time to time and it made it hard for the Panthers to stay ahead of the chains on defense, but with the defense successfully generating turnovers on deeper routes and – crucially – winning games, it wasn’t something that was dominating headlines. This is not something the average fan is likely to notice or care that much because, after all, their team is winning, but this is exactly the kind of thing a defensive quality control coach should recognize as something opponents are having some success with and thereby recommending the defense mix in some more press and close coverage.
Either this recommendation wasn’t made, or it was ignored – because the Panthers continued to overuse these coverages and were finally made to pay for it against the Steelers when their offense repeatedly looked to get the ball out to receivers immediately and let them work against the corners ball-in-hand. A number of other things went wrong against the Steelers, but watching the game again, it is hard not to come to conclusion that this was something the Steelers had identified on tape and were looking to exploit over and over again.
So OK, it’s halftime against the Steelers and the Panthers are largely getting beaten down – it’s 31-14 and the game is getting away from them, but having seen the Steelers repeatedly get five-to-ten yards on these quick hitters, the defense should have been able to make this correction and give the offense a chance to make a game of things.
This correction didn’t happen.
Rivera, as a defensive coach, should have noted, Washington should have noted, even the ballboys should probably have been leaning over and suggesting they maybe play their corners closer to the line. The issue here is not that the defense had a flaw, but rather than even when it was repeatedly being pointed out by the opponent, the Panthers were blind to it; the same thing was true for the Panthers’ use of man blitzes.
Going forward, the Panthers are probably going to have to find a new defensive coordinator and secondary coach at the very least – Eric Washington and Sam Mills III are good at their job when allowed to focus on the defensive front, and I don’t think there is enough information to know how effectively the linebackers have been coached so far this season. I don’t who the Panthers’ new coaches in these areas should be, but for them to be successful they need to learn from the mistakes of this season; coverage and pass rush have to complement each other and that for a pass rush to succeed, the ball has to stay with the quarterback for at least a couple of seconds, and that they need to have a plan for getting off the field that doesn’t rely on turnovers. Eric Washington had some good ideas in terms of incorporating 3-4 looks into the defensive scheme as a way of disguising pressure in obvious passing situations, but there were also times when he appeared to overthink rush strategies, such as the use of tackles as edge rushers or dropping tackles into coverage against five-wide formations. If a new defensive coordinator can take a little from column A and leave column B well alone, the talent is unquestionably there for this defense to be something special. If nothing else, the game against the Saints on MNF proved just how talented this defense is when put in positions to succeed.