CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott told reporters to be patient when his unit was ranked 28th in the NFL. He reminded them it's a 16-game season and not to judge the product too early.
He was right.
The Panthers (7-8-1) enter Saturday’s NFC wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals (11-5) ranked 10th in the NFL in total defense, the third-straight year McDermott’s unit has achieved a top-10 ranking.
The recipe, while it took a while to get here, is the same as last season: stop the run, pressure the quarterback with four down linemen and force turnovers.
During their four-game winning streak, opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 22.2. Only the defenses of the Texans (15.2) and defending Super Bowl champion Seattle (15.6) have been better.
That is the recipe for success in the playoffs. Since 2006, according to ESPN Stats & Information, all but two of the Super Bowl champions were ranked in the top 10 in opponent quarterback rating. Five were ranked in the top five.
Defense is big reason the Panthers are favored against a team with four more wins. Defense is a reason they have a chance to advance.
The turnaround began nine games ago. But it didn’t fully take until four games ago when Carolina added more speed in the secondary with a pair of rookies -- Bene' Benwikere replaced Melvin White at corner and Tre Boston replaced Thomas DeCoud at free safety.
And don’t forget Josh Norman emerging as a cornerback with shutdown capability.
Since then all the pieces have fallen into place in terms of getting pressure with the front four and forcing turnovers.
The Panthers have 14 of their 40 sacks and nine of their 26 forced turnovers since the overhaul of the secondary.
“I will just say this, the pass rush and the play of the secondary go hand in hand,’’ defensive tackle Colin Cole said when asked why the front four seems to be so much more effective lately.
A year ago,, the pressure applied by the front four was credited with the strong play of a relatively new secondary. This year the revamping of the secondary has played a big role in the front four finally getting back on track.
“A lot of it has to do with the personnel and the personnel getting comfortable,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “When I was in San Diego, in the middle of the season we went from, I think, 26th to 14. We’ve gone from 28 to 10. It speaks very well to the coaching job that’s been done, but also to the development of our players.’’
ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, who led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory following the 2002 season, said McDermott deserves more credit than he’s received.
“They might play the game on defense with as much effort as I’ve seen all year,’’ he said. “Dallas and Carolina have two of the great effort defenses in the tournament.’’
It begins with linebacker Luke Kuechly in the middle. Arizona coach Bruce Arians called him the “best middle linebacker in football.’’
“But I think as a group they understand their defense extremely well,’’ Arians added.
The loss of defensive end Greg Hardy before the third game hurt. Last year’s sack leader was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list until the conclusion of his domestic violence case is resolved, which won’t be until sometime in 2015.
Carolina spent the first seven games giving up big plays, uncharacteristically losing gap control. Rivera and McDermott both said at the time players were trying to do too much to replace Hardy and the mistakes were fixable.
McDermott had to use blitzes to apply pressure, which made the Panthers even more vulnerable.
Now that the group has added speed and begun playing with stronger fundamentals, the numbers support the effort.
The Panthers have used four or fewer pass-rushers 31 percent of the time in the last four games. That number was 20 percent in the first 12 games.
Opposing quarterbacks had an average quarterback rating of 80.1 against Carolina in the first 12 games compared to 22.2 the last four. Their completion percentage has dropped from 68.8 percent to 58.1. Their ratio of touchdowns-to-interceptions has gone from 12-7 to 1-5.
The Panthers have sacked or put opposing quarterbacks under duress on 32.5 percent of their dropbacks in the last four games. That ranks second in the NFL.
In their first 12 games, that number was 22.5 percent to rank 28th in the NFL.
As a result the Panthers have allowed only 43 points (10.75 ppg.) during this four-game stretch. Only Seattle with 33 has allowed fewer. Carolina ranked 29th in points allowed (27.8) over the first 12 games.
“Right now we’re doing a much better job of executing the game plan,’’ outside linebacker Thomas Davis said.
And the man putting together the plan is the same person that said not to judge his defense prematurely.
Another good call.