Carolina Plays Pivotal Game Against Chicago Today

Too many times, announcers especially like to prop up the game they're calling by saying it's a "must-win game." The problem is, there ARE no "must-win games" in week TWO.
This is week five, however, and with the Panthers having given up 30+ points in consecutive losses, the third time is the charm as the saying goes.

Chicago has a potent offense both on the ground with Matt Forte and in the air with four very good skill players: QB Jay Cutler, WR Brandon Marshall, WR Alshon Jeffery, and TE Martellus Bennett.

Forte's forte - such as it is - is catching passes out of the backfield. Yes, he has 4.4 speed and when he gets the ball in space, he can be a very explosive player. With the Bears' offense, it's a case of picking your poison.

With the Panthers having vomited up 37 to a Pittsburgh offense grinding it out and 38 to a potent air attack in Baltimore, the Panthers need to get their act together this week. If you can't stop the run OR the pass, what are you doing out there?

What's particularly baffling is where they DID go. As we all know, the Panthers' defense entered the season as the strong suit of the team, finishing a close second to Seattle in most meaningful defensive categories last season and returned the strength of that part of the squad in the front seven.

We also know of Greg Hardy's legal and league issues, but I'm not so sure missing one guy turns a defense that gives up 12 points per game to one giving up 37.5 points per game. The issues are far more systemic than not having one of your top players - not even your top pass rusher.

Even Ron Rivera said he had counted fourteen different plays against Baltimore where at least two defenders were out of position....not to mention plays where "only" one was.

So what's the explanation for this "regression?"

That's a baffling question because the answers aren't very obvious at first glance. The team has the same defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, and as I've said, basically the same front seven (Hardy being the exception).

Since the safeties and some of the corners are new to the team this season, the defensive backfield is the obvious culprit, but they aren't entirely to blame, either. MLB Luke Kuechly isn't playing up to the level he had last season when he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Even HE has been caught out of position on some long gains, including the 81-yarder that Le'Veon Bell ripped off on us two weeks ago.

So why would Kuechly regress? I'm not so sure that "regression" is the right term for him. With the defensive backfield being obviously confused in assignments at times, he may feel he has to do even more than he should, and therein lies the rub: when you "do too much," you become more aggressive and tend to commit yourself too early in an "all or nothing " other words, he may be thinking "If I don't make the play, nobody will."

The results are on film. He'd be better served, like the rest of the defense, to play what I call "robotic" football. That's where you don't care what your teammates are doing and only care about what YOU can do. Coach says, player does. Robotic.

This is not to say you don't play with passion - the entire team does that. I'm not questioning their desire or heart or work ethic. I'm questioning their focus and grasp of the system - at least the safeties for now - and if this is causing a ripple effect of sorts. With Roman Harper having been out of position as much or more than anyone I've seen on the defense, perhaps others feel like they have to "cover" for him so to speak, or "hide" him by trying to do a little bit more....and that's the trap the defense may be falling into.

It isn't a personnel issue. It isn't a faulty scheme. It isn't a bad coordinator.

That narrows things down considerably. What it comes down to is a matter of playing disciplined, smart defense.

People used to talk about Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, saying "Not only did he not want you to gain a yard, he didn't want you to gain an inch!"

In the run-happy days of the 1950's and 60's, that style of play often worked. Aggressive, stop the run at all costs football.

That approach simply doesn't work in an NFL when a QB can take a snap, a 3-step drop, and have the ball out of his hands in less than two seconds. At least, it won't consistently work unless you're playing against this year's version of the New England Patriots. I'm convinced it's because I drafted Tom Brady for my fantasy league, but that's an entirely different article.

I think the team would be better served to go back and look at last year's game film and this year's game film, see what the differences are, correct them, and go back to being a top-five defense again. I'm sure McDermott has been going through that very process and has been under a lot of heat from Rivera these last couple of weeks.

Even the best defensive teams have bad nights for whatever reason. Take, for instance, the 1985 Chicago Bears....regarded by many as the best single-season defense of all time.

Yes, that's Ron above and his team lost only a single game, but in the process they looked completely beatable. I remember it because I saw it live. They played against Dan Marino on Monday Night Football in the Orange Bowl and would send 8 guys after Dan.

One problem: Marino got rid of the ball more quickly than anyone ever had in NFL history - before or since. He'd take that three-step drop and actually throw fairly long passes - he'd just loft it up, let the single-covered receiver run under it, and "pull the string" on the pass, dropping it out in front of him perfectly. They scored at least two TDs using this method and won the 14 points. And it was never even that close.

However, the Panthers aren't exposing their secondary by blitzing, they're exposing it by not generating the pass rush from the D-line they used to last season. Yes, Hardy's absence doesn't help, but Charles Johnson hasn't had a good year thus far either. DE Wes Horton, starting for Hardy, hasn't had a single sack in 2014. Mario Addison is a good pass-rusher as a reserve and could well start in Horton's place perhaps, since not only does Horton not have a sack, he doesn't even have an unassisted tackle.

Gettleman's selection of Missouri DE Kony Ealy is looking better all the time, but he still needs time to grow into the position.

So, we've got a defensive backfield low on talent, rookie Ben "The Fed Chief" Benwikere notwithstanding, and many of them are first-year Panthers. The D-line isn't having the season they had last year as a whole, and Thomas Davis didn't even play against Baltimore.

I see issues at every level of the defense. Perhaps the sum of the "missing" parts is greater than the whole, but every team has injuries or key cogs gone for some time. Baltimore beat us even with the Ray Rice distraction, which is far greater than Hardy's in the public eye, for instance.

The pivotal part of today's ball game is indeed the defensive unit. If they can correct the issues they're facing and play more solid football, Carolina has enough offense, assuming they don't have to press my grandmother into service at running back, to put up enough points to win the game at home despite..."average" offensive tackles, to be kind.

If the defense continues its confused play, even the New York Jets could put up a score with a 3-handle on us....and that won't help us win against ANYONE.

A third consecutive poor showing by Carolina's defense would seem to indicate deeper systemic problems than I think may exist at this point and would be a symptom of problems that may take more time to fix than the Panthers have time to limit the numbers in the loss column.

Lastly, nobody seems to want to win the NFC South so far. Nobody is above .500. Even if the Panthers "back into" a division crown at, say, 9-7 or 10-6, from what I see, we'll have a very quick exit to the playoffs....just like last year.

And last year, we had a great defense!

Rivera & Co. need to get that bilge pump running and fast.....the ship is riding lower and lower in the water. It can still be saved, but it means focusing on doubling down on the hard work.

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