Carolina Panthers Control the Center in Playoff Chess Match

I’m not much of a chess player. To be honest, I haven’t even played that much.  In the little I have played,though, I’ve recognized two helpful concepts—one strategic and the other stylistic. First, chess masters commonly promote the strategic importance of controlling the board’s center.  Securing the center promotes a reactive defensive style that frees offensive lanes for attack.  Simply put, it is a sound defensive strategy that is offensively opportunistic. Second, mastering a style allows players to develop a signature identity. Experienced players come to understand their signature identity’s inherent strengths and weaknesses over time.  Advanced players further learn to recognize beyond the chessboard by also earning about themselves — they become comfortable and confident.

Ron Rivera’s Panthers are successfully applying these concepts in their run to the playoffs.  
Controlling the center with the league’s best front seven, Carolina’s defense bought time for Carolina’s offensive to mature, creating a signature team identity of power defense that creates offensive opportunism.  

Controlling the Center:

It’s clear that Carolina’s strength originates from their defensive dominance. The key to this dominance is the Panthers’ center—the NFL’s best front seven.

This front seven is plain scary, punishing opposing offenses by stymieing the run game and persistently pressuring quarterbacks. Directed by the league’s best linebacker core (Luke Kuechly & +Thomas Davis) and anchored by newly added hog mollies (Star Lotulelei & Kwan Short), Carolina has opened attack lanes for one of the league’s best pass rushes (Charles Johnson & Greg Hardy).

Panther GM, Dave Gettleman, announced this strategy clearly in the 2013 NFL draft, grabbing consecutive DTs in the first two rounds.  This proved a wise decision.  Instantly,  Lotulelei, Short, and veteran Dwan Edwards have plugged rushing lanes, propelling the Panthers’ rushing defense from #14 in 2012 to #3 in 2013 overall.

This strengthened center also Improved LB and DE play.  Luke Kuechly is playing like the league’s best LB, supported by Thomas Davis who has reemerged as premier OLB.  This tandem has played so well that Carolina dealt Jon Beason to the Giants for a conditional draft pick, and defensive production has only improved. Beason’s immediate impact  in New York shows he still has gas in the tank. It’s simply insane to think that the Panther LBs can be playing like the league’s best without Beason. Kuechly and Davis have gotten it done, though, both making strong Pro-Bowl bids.  

Carolina’s pass rush is equally intimidating. Charles “Big $$” Johnson earns his paper each week, and Greg Hardy is playing like he wants Big $$’s nickname.

It seems as if these two explode off the edge on every play, while the big hog mollies attack the center.  Both Star and Short have added to the Panthers defensive versatility tremendously .  

Carolina’s strategy of controlling the center has bought time for the offensive to mature, allowing the team to develop a signature identity.

Defensive Stats
Panther Ranking (NFL Overall )
Points Allowed per game
Yards Per Game
Passing (YPG)

Developing a Signature Style:

After a 1-3 start that should have been 3-1, winning bewildered Rivera’s Panthers. In his 3rd year, Rivera’s Panthers had always played competitively, but never seemed to put everything together and simply win. The 1-3 season starting Rivera had become a byword for squandered opportunities.

Well we have learned a lot about Rivera’s Panthers since then.  They were not what we thought they were—they are even better!

This team is tough. Powered by that big front seven, Carolina has developed its signature style—power defense that creates offensive opportunism.  

How did we do it?

Rivera and His staff-

Ron Rivera- Give credit to Ron “Coolio” Rivera.  His cool demeanor finally paid off, as Carolina’s defense has developed the toughness reminiscent of his past with the ‘85 Bears.  While everyone has been fascinated with the “Riverboat Ron” phenomenon, Rivera has matured into an impressive head coach. Rivera in many eyes is a strong contender for coach of the year.

Shawn McDermott- Some Panther fans are already speculating that Carolina’s defensive success will land McDermott a head coaching spot.  I don’t see this, but it does highlight an important change in Charlotte over the last two seasons. Carolina’s defense struggled early last season, and a lot of the blame fell on McDermott.  But wisely, Rivera stuck with the former Eagle coordinator.  Despite the rocky start last year, the Panthers defense has been impressive for the last 18 games. Gettleman brought in some important pieces in 2013 with Star, K. Short, Quintin Mikell, and Mike Mitchell.  McDermott has made the most of it too!  Just last year, McDermott was on the hot seat and now fans are afraid he will leave.  

Mike Shula- In another example of Rivera’s coolness translating into wisdom, Shula is working out as offensive coordinator.  After Chudzinski left, the Panthers promoted Shula from within rather than looking for a big name to revive the offense.  Despite the learning curve, Shula has developed as a coordinator and play caller.  Watching Shula’s maturation has been nerve-racking for many fans, but Carolina’s performance against the Patriots relieved some of that angst.  In the last 7 weeks, Shula has developed the pieces available to create sound Panther offense.  

Cam Entertainment-

Newton has been sensational.  Over the last three years, Cam Newton has matured significantly as a quarterback and leader. Newton has demonstrated significantly improved pocket presence and passing efficiencies.  While Shula’s offense asks less of Newton in the rushing game, there have been sightings of SuperCam breaking 25 yd runs.  We are witnessing the development of the “NEW-ton” NFL quarterback.  Big, strong, and freakishly athletic, Cam Newton is simply entertaining. More frightening, he is becoming an effective passer.  Newton continues to progress, looking past his 1st and 2nd reads, tucking the ball when required, and airing it out when available.  The most telling sign of his progress can be seen in his improved 3rd down efficiency.  Currently, Carolina is #3 in 3rd down conversions.  Last, year the Panthers finished ranked #12.

Newton’s development, however, can also be seen is his demeanor.  Newton looks serious on the field, poised in the pocket, and mesmerizing on the run.  Newton simply looks comfortable both on the field and off.  Cam has given us some pretty painful post-game press conferences in the past.  This year he has been charismatic, mature, accountable, and confident in post game press conferences.  Newton’s teammates continue to attest to his leadership and character.  Carolina invested in the face of a franchise, and it looks like the Panthers are receiving the dividends.

Carolina’s entry to the playoffs is not guaranteed by any means. Rivera’s Panthers are well positioned though. Only one game back, the division or a wild card spot would not be surprising.  Although checkmate is a distant thought, it is possible. The Panthers defensive identity may just position the Panthers’ opportunistic offense for a deep playoff run.  Checkmates often come out of nowhere!