The Panthers have had an issue with their pass rush for much of the season, and while some of this has more to do with the ability of the quarterback schemed to get the ball out quickly than the pass rush itself, the firing of Brady Hoke wasn’t without reason – the defensive line should really be playing better than they have been based on their talent level, especially in terms of pass rush.
They’ve got accomplished veterans like Julius Peppers and Mario Addison on the edge along with Kawann Short on the interior, but take away those leaders’ sack totals and the Panthers have only 13 sacks in 12 games, with only five of those coming from the rest of the defensive line.
In order to find a solution to this problem, the Panthers have rotated the bottom of the active defensive end depth chart week-to-week – even going do far as trying Wes Horton as a 3-technique at times during Sunday’s loss in Tampa. With that in mind, and with all of the three defensive ends that make up the bottom of the depth chart having been active for at least one of the past two games as Ron Rivera says they want to get a look and “decide what to do” with their young edge rushers, what do the Panthers appear to have at defensive end beyond the three vets – is there any chance of a solution to the Panthers’ pass rushing issues being found on the roster either this season or going forward?
Wes Horton (#96)
First, let’s start with the player who has been a significant part of the defensive end rotation for a number of years whom the Panthers wanted to try as a 3-technique in an attempt to aid their pass rush. In principle, this does make some sense – using a larger defensive end with length on the interior can create a mismatch against a guard – that could force a double team from the center that leaves other players unblocked. On two plays against the Buccaneers, Horton was able to achieve just that, and while he doesn’t generate any pass rush himself on these plays, the fact that he forces a double team has real value:
And on a couple of plays, Horton was used on a stunt, in an attempt to rub free the outside rusher:
Again, these are plays where the pressure is not meant to come from Horton, but where he is being used in an attempt to generate pressure elsewhere. However, it should be noted that using Horton to do this rather than Poe, Love or Butler doesn’t really make much difference. On a couple of plays, however, Horton did show his worth, first by using his combination of speed and power to drive the blocker back into the quarterback:
And on the second by wrapping around nicely to force Winston back into Kawann Short for the sack:
There were also a couple of plays where he didn’t really do anything hugely wrong, but wasn’t able to get pressure as he was either caught off-balance by a chip:
Or because the guard was able to drive him wide of the main pocket:
Not everything was rosy for Horton as an interior rusher this weekend – as a longer defensive end, his pad level was a slight issue when rushing for the interior; by getting too high at times, he made it too easy for blockers to negate his momentum:
Using Horton on the interior certainly didn’t go badly in terms of pass rush – while there are some ways in which he can improve, the real concern with using Horton on the interior is going to be in the run game. While the idea would hopefully be to only use him inside on obvious passing downs, he was on the field for four rushing plays against the Buccaneers and that went about as well as you’d expect:
I don’t mind the Panthers using Horton as a 3-technique to aid the pass rush, but that does mean that you only have three defensive tackles you can rotate outside of those obvious passing situations – while Vernon Butler has not lived up to expectations as a former first-round pick, he is a decent player when used as a 1-technique, and unless the Panthers are happy to have Love, Poe and Short all playing north of 45% of the snaps, having only three defensive tackles active is not something that should be recommended, even if they continue to use Horton and maybe Peppers as 3-techs in obvious passing situations.