Pan­thers’ Yoda has de­fense show­ing off its true force

Why Rhule was con­fi­dent DC Phil Snow could fix the Pan­thers’ once-tat­tered de­fense

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JONATHAN M. ALEXAN­DER jalexan­der@char­lot­teob­server.com

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

was hired.

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.”

DAVID T. FOSTER III dt­fos­ter@char­lot­teob­server.com

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.

DAVID T. FOSTER dt­fos­ter@char­lot­teob­server.com

“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.”

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