Pan­thers plan to fix de­fense by get­ting back to play­ing it

The Herald (Rock Hill) - - Sports - BY JOUR­DAN RODRIGUE jro­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Carolina Pan­thers head coach Ron Rivera stood hud­dled next to lineback­ers coach Steve Russ in the sec­ond quar­ter of last week’s loss at Tampa Bay.

And that was the “tell,” for those with a keen eye and an un­der­stand­ing of how hel­met mi­cro­phones are wired.

Rivera took over the de­fen­sive play-call­ing on Sun­day, a day be­fore de­mot­ing de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Eric Wash­ing­ton to “front seven coach” in role but not in ti­tle.

His in­creased com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Russ meant a di­rect line to mid­dle line­backer Luke Kuechly, the “quar­ter­back” of the de­fense. That line is re­served for the de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, be­cause part of Kuechly’s job is to then com­mu­ni­cate those calls to the rest of the de­fense.

But to the play­ers, there was a dif­fer­ent “tell.” It was when a play call came through that was not in the Pan­thers’ orig­i­nal game plan.

“There was a call that we didn’t prac­tice all week, and when it came in we were like, ‘Whoa,’” safety Eric Reid said. “Then they told us that he had called that play. We knew some­thing was up when that hap­pened.”

Rivera fol­lowed that up with a cou­ple more that weren’t orig­i­nally de­signed for that week’s game.

“They were a part of our in­ven­tory, so I know our play­ers know it,” he said on Thurs­day. “So as we were go­ing through the game, the flow of the game, I just felt that I needed to call that, even though it wasn’t ‘up,’ it was in our in­ven­tory. And I knew that we could han­dle it.”

Rivera com­pared it to a quar­ter­back call­ing an au­di­ble.

“I called a blitz that we got a play out of,” he said. “It’s those things that you know (the play­ers) are ca­pa­ble of do­ing. And to me, it’s easy to pull back when you have vet­eran guys.”

Rivera will have to de­pend on his vet­er­ans for the rest of the sea­son as he con­tin­ues in the role.

But those vet­er­ans know they also have to step up to help fix Carolina’s de­fen­sive woes.

One even called an ex­clu­sive meet­ing about it a lit­tle over a week ago.

A PLAY­ERS-ONLY MEET­ING

Line­backer Thomas Davis called a de­fen­sive play­ers-only meet­ing dur­ing prepa­ra­tions for the team’s trip to Tampa Bay.

“His­tor­i­cally, we’ve been good around here de­fen­sively,” Davis said. “It’s im­por­tant for us to con­tinue to un­der­stand and know that this team’s suc­cess is re­volved around how well we play on de­fense.”

Vet­eran corner­back Cap­tain Mun­ner­lyn said Sun­day that he felt, like sev­eral other team lead­ers, that the Pan­thers’ is­sues dur­ing a four-game skid were player-driven and not coach-driven.

And this de­fense’s is­sues have been so nu­mer­ous, the Pan­thers’ for­mer de­fen­sive iden­tity has been in dan­ger of be­ing eclipsed.

“Around here, for a long time, we’ve had de­fense,” Mun­ner­lyn said this week. “If you talk about the Carolina Pan­thers, of course you’re go­ing to talk about Cam Newton and things like that. But you were al­ways

go­ing to talk about the Pan­thers’ de­fense and how good it was.”

That was Davis’ mes­sage dur­ing the meet­ing.

“Let’s get back to that,” Mun­ner­lyn said, quot­ing Davis. “Not no ‘Oh man, we’re play­ing the Carolina Pan­thers and Cam Newton.’ What about their de­fense? ‘Oh, is their de­fense go­ing to let them down this week?’ Let’s get back to putting fear in peo­ples’ heart. Let­ting them know that the Carolina de­fense is for real.

“That’s him, ev­ery­body knows that,” said Mun­ner­lyn. “We know what we have to do, and that’s win games. No­body cares how pretty it is, we just have to win foot­ball games. ...We have to fo­cus in, laser down and we have to play. We don’t have any more time for er­ror.”

Carolina’s play­ers, said Mun­ner­lyn, feel like they have to con­trol what they can in or­der to win, be­cause even if they win out, their post­sea­son fu­ture is still out of their hands.

Rivera’s move to take over the de­fen­sive play­call­ing showed that he too wants to con­trol as much as he can, with so much of the Pan­thers’ — and per­haps even his — fate look­ing murkier with each loss.

But in or­der for him to do so, oth­ers will as­sume more re­spon­si­bil­ity, and some parts will move a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ently.

DE­FEN­SIVE ADJUSTMENTS, TEAM ADJUSTMENTS

Rivera smiled at the prospect of one of his du­ties on Sun­day, which is to com­mu­ni­cate, via Russ, more with Kuechly than he does on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Kuechly al­ready has a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity. He even has the au­ton­omy to change the call, make checks and stunt with the de­fen­sive line.

Most im­por­tantly, he does all of the “think­ing,” so other guys don’t have to. Rivera said he wants his de­fense to play fast and limit mis­takes, which he says hap­pens by think­ing less about each play.

“I got to watch prob­a­bly the great­est mid­dle line­backer in my era, Mike Sin­gle­tary, do it,” Rivera, a for­mer Chicago Bears line­backer, said. “And the thing that was most im­pres­sive to me, and I see sim­i­lar­i­ties in Luke, is the way Mike got the in­for­ma­tion to ev­ery­body on the field. Mike could lit­er­ally tell ev­ery (one of them) what they were sup­posed to do pre-snap. And when you know what you’re sup­posed to do, you play fast.”

Oth­ers on the side­line will see their roles in­crease, too.

As­sis­tants who help with time outs and clock man­age­ment will be thrust into the spot­light with Rivera’s fo­cus largely else­where. The Pan­thers’ de­fen­sive staff will also have to ad­just sit­u­a­tion­ally, like it did Sun­day, should Rivera get drawn into some­thing that re­quires his full at­ten­tion.

“Those are all things that I ask those guys to speak up, to give more in­for­ma­tion,” he said. “They have to be more aware. And I’m ask­ing a lot of a lot of guys ...

“(Sun­day) some­thing hap­pened and I had to deal with the ref­er­ees, and Eric (Wash­ing­ton) went ahead and took over, went right back into play-call­ing mode, and then I came right back. But that’s what will be ex­pected, ev­ery­one will have to be a bit sharper.”

‘THROW­BACK’ GAME

On Sun­day in Cleve­land, Rivera will even find him­self in a “throw­back” game of sorts as the Pan­thers try to snap a fourgame los­ing streak.

Be­cause he’ll have so much on his plate as head coach and de­fen­sive play­caller, Rivera will give up al­most com­plete of­fen­sive con­trol to co­or­di­na­tor Norv Turner.

The stakes are dif­fer­ent now, though. Be­fore last week’s loss in Tampa Bay, a re­port by CBS Sports’ Ja­son La Can­fora said new owner David Tep­per had grown frustrated with the re­peated los­ing, and said Tep­per might consider mak­ing or­ga­ni­za­tional changes in­clud­ing at head coach.

Rivera didn’t want to com­ment on the re­port, but the next day, he pub­licly as­sumed Wash­ing­ton’s play-call­ing du­ties for the rest of the sea­son and fired two de­fen­sive as­sis­tants, af­ter a meet­ing with Tep­per and gen­eral man­ager Marty Hur­ney.

When Rivera was a de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in San Diego, Turner called the of­fen­sive plays as the head coach. The Charg­ers’ 13-3 sea­son in 2009 helped so­lid­ify Rivera’s sta­tus as a fu­ture head coach.

Rivera, in a “de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor” role, could again find his fu­ture de­cided by how he per­forms in it.

Head coach Ron Rivera

MARK LOMOGLIO AP

Vet­eran line­backer Thomas Davis called a meet­ing of de­fen­sive play­ers be­fore the trip to Tampa. “His­tor­i­cally, we’ve been good around here de­fen­sively,” Davis said.

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