CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The biggest disappointment for Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera during a 1-5 start comes from an area that was supposed to be the biggest strength.
The defensive front.
“The biggest disappointment is we haven’t had the production we would have liked out of the front,’’ Rivera said on Monday. “We’ve done a good job stopping the run.
“But that’s not what’s killing us. The thing that we have to do is find that productivity.’’
Rivera is talking about sacks and pressure.
The Panthers rank 16th in the NFL in sacks with 12 -- a pace for 32 on the season. That would be their lowest total since Rivera’s first season when they had 31 in 2011.
Carolina ranked sixth in sacks with 44 a year ago and had a league-best 59 in 2013.
That led to the only winning records -- 12-4 in 2013 and 15-1 in 2015 – under Rivera.
Only seven of the 12 sacks this season have come from the front four that was considered one of the best in the NFL entering the season. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short has only one sack after leading the team with 11 a year ago.
This group was supposed to take the pressure off Carolina’s young secondary. Instead it has created pressure.
The secondary hasn’t responded, allowing the two highest single-game totals in passing yards in team history over the past three weeks. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan had 503 yards in a 48-33 victory, and New Orleans’ Drew Brees had 465 yards in Sunday’s 41-38 victory.
As a result, the Panthers have gone from a perennial top 10 defense to 23rd.
“Well, what you’re seeing, when you break the tape down, which we’ve done the last Atlanta, Tampa and New Orleans now, the one thing we’re seeing is we’re getting a lot of double-teaming of our three techniques, a lot of play-action on first and second down,’’ Rivera said. “Third down we’re seeing a few more chips on the outside of our defensive ends.
“There’s some things we’ve got to be able to do to counter that stuff. We’re going to look at it and try to put those guys in better positions and make sure that we’ve got the right guys out on the field rushing.’’
That will be an emphasis during the bye week as the coaching staff does a lot of self-evaluation while players take most of the week off.
“If we get the pass rush up, I think we’re going to be OK,’’ Rivera said.
The lack of production has been across the board, but certain players stand out. Third-year defensive end Kony Ealy, who had three sacks in Super Bowl 50, has none in six games.
“You see what Kony is capable of doing,’’ Rivera said. “You saw that in the Super Bowl. Again, maybe we put a little bit too much on his shoulders. But again, we think he has that kind of ability.’’
Charles Johnson, second on Carolina’s all-time sack list with 64, has half a sack. That came on Sunday at New Orleans.
“Charles has played very consistent for us,’’ Rivera said. “I know he doesn’t have the production numbers a lot people want to talk about. But if you look at the other production numbers of the quarterback hits and the pressure, he’s right where we need him. Again, you’d like to have the sack number.’’
In terms of quarterback hits, the Panthers have only 28. To put that in perspective, their opponents have 44.
“It always starts up front,’’ defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “You need to be able to affect the quarterback in this league.’’
The Panthers haven’t consistently done that, in part because opponents have gone to a quick passing game to negate the rush and in part because the front seven has underperformed.
Injuries also have played a role. First-round pick Vernon Butler has missed the past three games and tackle Paul Soliai was out on Sunday with a foot injury. End Ryan Delaire was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Ultimately, those are just excuses. Rivera, a former defensive coordinator, understands that to turn around this season he has to turn around the pass rush.
“Some guys that we counted on haven’t been productive, and some guys we counted on haven’t had opportunities because of injuries,’’ Rivera said. “We’ve got to find ways to manufacture it.’’