Panthers’ Yoda has defense showing off its true force
Why Rhule was confident DC Phil Snow could fix the Panthers’ once-tattered defense
he night before their Week 3 victory over the the Los Angeles Chargers last month, the Panthers held a team meeting.
Among the speakers was defensive coordinator Phil Snow, whose message, although no one can seem to recall verbatim, apparently struck the right chord.
“The past two weeks, we’ve all been saying, we’re this close and Coach Snow said something that really hit home,” Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater recalled. “We’ve got to get rid of that ‘we’re this close’ B.S., and just go out and do it.”
The Panthers were 0-2 entering their Week 3 game, and likely could have been 1-1 had they fixed a few mistakes earlier.
But Snow, who is 64 and prefers to keep things simple, was tired of hearing that. He just wanted to win.
The Panthers’ defense responded by putting on their best performance of the season that week, forcing four turnovers and beating the Chargers, 21-16.
The following Sunday against the Cardinals , the Panthers forced another turnover en route to a 31-21 win.
“He’s very old school,” defensive back Donte Jackson said of Snow. “Only thing he really, really preaches, and we always like to mess with him because that’s the old school in him, is just ‘play hard.’”
That message has resonated with players like Jackson, and it’s why first-year Panthers coach Matt Rhule brought Snow with him from Baylor.
When Rhule and his staff took over, the Panthers parted ways with more than half of their defensive starters.
Cornerback James Bradberry signed with the New York Giants. Defensive linemen Mario Addison and Vernon Butler signed with the Buffalo Bills. Defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe signed with the Dallas Cowboys. The Panthers cut safety Eric Reid.
And star linebacker Luke Kuechly unexpectedly announced his retirement a week after Rhule
Snow said when he was hired, he immediately started watching the film on 2019 Panthers and liked some of the things he saw.
“And I said, well ‘who is this guy,’ when I first came in, and they said, ‘Well, Coach he’s gone. He’s gone,’” Snow said. “We had to basically — not start over, but there are a lot of guys from last year’s defense that aren’t here today.”
The task of rebuilding this Panthers defense seemed monumental from the outside looking in. They used all seven of their picks in the 2020 NFL Draft on defensive players. (The first team in the common-draft era to do so.) Before the season, ESPN projected the Panthers to finish with between five and six wins, Bleacher Report predicted three wins, Sporting News predicted five wins, and CBS predicted four wins.
But Rhule believed in Snow, as he did when he hired him to be his defensive coordinator after landing the Temple head coaching job in 2013, and as he did when he landed the Baylor job in December 2016.
And while it’s still early in the season, the Panthers are showing progress. They rank tied for 10th in the NFL in yards allowed per game (352.2) through four games. In 2019, they ranked 23rd.
“He’s the best coach I know,” Rhule said, when asked why he hired Snow. “He’s a tremendous teacher. He doesn’t make excuses.
“Everywhere we’ve been he’s built the defense. Over the course of three years, it takes a little bit of time at first, but we always end up having a great defense.”
PHIL SNOW IS A STRAIGHT SHOOTER
Rhule and Snow first met at UCLA, where Snow was the defensive coordinator, and Rhule was a grad assistant looking to get hired.
Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who died in 2012, recommended the staff at UCLA hire Rhule, a former walk-on for him with the Nittany Lions, and they did to coach the defensive line.
Rhule left UCLA after one year, but Snow and Rhule’s friendship continued. And when it was Rhule’s time to become the head coach at Temple in 2013, he asked Snow to be his defensive coordinator. He agreed.
In 2013, during Snow’s first season as Temple’s DC, Temple ranked 110th out of 125 FBS teams in total defense. Three years later, the Owls were ranked third in the country.
At Baylor, the Bears finished 1-11 in Rhule’s first season there in 2017, and their total defense was ranked 112th out of 130.
“At Baylor (before Snow), we weren’t known for playing defense, I’m just going to tell you that,” said rookie defensive tackle Bravvion Roy, who played at Baylor from 2016 to 2019. “But Phil Snow put it all together and we bought in and we did what we had to do.”
By Year 3, the Bears were 11-3, and finished 39th in total defense.
Linebacker Clay Johnston, who also played at Baylor under Snow, called him a “super genius,” a “wise man,” and likened him to his grandfather.
“We call him Coach Snow, but he’s the Yoda of the defense,” Johnston said, referencing the legendary Star Wars character for his intellect.
Said Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians: Snow is “one of the best coaches I’ve ever known, college or pro.”
Both players say Snow is at the Panthers facility when they arrive and is the last one to leave. He also holds his players accountable, they say. That’s something veteran defensive tackle Kawann Short, one of the few returning defensive vets, values about Snow.
“He’s going to shoot it to you straight and you want one of those type of coaches, that no matter what type of caliber player you are, he’s going to tell you how he feels and what he wants out of you,” Short said. “You want the truth. Phil, he just doesn’t hold back, and what he does for us, we need and how aggressive he is, we like that as a defense.”
Some of the Panthers’ best teams in years past have been known for their aggressive defenses. While Cam Newton won the MVP in 2015, that Panthers team would not have been as successful as they were if not for the defense.
Same for Carolina’s 2003 Super Bowl team.
But the Panthers reached rock bottom under former coach Ron Rivera last season.
After switching from a 4-3 base defense in 2018 to a 3-4 base in 2019, the Panthers were oftentimes out of place. They defended the pass well early in the season, and got to the quarterback often, but defending the run — well, that was another story.
Third-and-short plays were almost automatic conversions for opposing teams. The Panthers allowed 2,292 yards rushing, 5.2 yards per carry and surrendered 31 rushing touchdowns — eight more than the second-worst team last season. It went from bad to terrible in Week 8, when the San Francisco 49ers rushed for 232 yards and five touchdowns in a dominant 51-13 win.
Through the first two games this season, the Panthers struggled at stopping the run. The Bucs and Raiders in Weeks 1 and 2 rushed for three touchdowns each. But the Panthers have steadily improved with each game.
“Everybody wanted to just be great, everybody wanted to make a play and be heard, but now it’s more like, all right I’ve got to help this guy to make this play,” Short said. “Right now, everybody is buying in now and the process is much smoother and then now we’re starting to breathe to understand we’ve got each other’s back. “
PROOF IN THE PUDDING FOR PANTHERS DEFENSE
Snow makes no qualms about his “old school” approach to coaching.
“Back in the old days ... ” Snow often starts.
It’s what he knows.
He began coaching high school in the ‘70s, before landing a defensive coordinator job at Boise State in 1983. He later became the defensive coordinator at Arizona State in 1995, where he recruited Jason Simmons, the now defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach for the Panthers.
Simmons said the first thing he noticed about Snow when he walked into his family’s home in the mid 1990s was that he was genuine. He told Simmons how exactly he planned to help him, and Simmons and his parents respected that he wasn’t just telling him everything he wanted to hear.
“He doesn’t pull any punches,” Simmons said. “He’s a guy that is going to be brutally honest with you.
“I’ve come to appreciate it as a player and a coach. That’s why I came here, to learn under him.”
That goes back to Snow’s old-school approach. He knew how to motivate Simmons and get him to play his best football in college. He taught him to “never cheat the game,” Simmons said. “You get what you deserve.”
Simmons, who was a 5-foot-9 safety, was ASU’s top cover man, and earned second-team All-Pac 10 honors as a senior in 1997. He was taken in the fifth round of the 1998 NFL draft and carved out a 10-year NFL career.
“He has his own way with each individual guy,” Simmons said.
Simmons said one of Snow’s requirements of his position coaches was they get to know the player on a personal level. He believes that’s the only way to get players to play faster and more physical.
When asked how Snow has changed from a college defensive coordinator in the ‘90s to one now, Simmons said he hasn’t.
“Of course he’s grown, and some things in terms of his scheme has changed, but the fundamental principles in terms of what he believes in, have not changed.”
It’s that old-school approach that Snow takes, that he believes will help turn around the Panthers defense. He’s told his veterans and position coaches that they won’t make excuses. Building teams take time.
The Panthers start two rookies on defense, and play two more rookies often — and opposing offenses aren’t going to hold back.
“We just had to mold our own way through it with all the new players we have,” Snow said. “And we’re making progress with that. I think between players and coaches we’re starting to come together.
“But again, the proof is in the pudding, you’ve got to go out and play, and play well, so hopefully we continue to get better each week.”
Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow talks with safety Juston Burris, right, during training camp in August. Snow has helped turn around the Panthers’ defense this year.
“He’s the best coach I know,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said when asked why he hired Snow. “He’s a tremendous teacher. He doesn’t make excuses.”