Thieves No More: Where Did Those Takeaways Go?

By John Ellis

Much like the mental pictures forged from those playful summer days on an old childhood street, memories of the once bustling Thieves Avenue grow more distant with each passing season.

The 2015 Carolina Panthers secondary was a uniquely adroit unit—a premium blend of supervisory savvy and youthful vitality.

The perimeter was patrolled by one such tandem: 34-year old craftsman Charles Tillman locking down the left side, with the exuberant Josh Norman shining in his first full season at right cornerback. The dynamic duo contributed a combined 6 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries.

Free safety Kurt Coleman was the NFC’s most productive player at his position, despite being omitted from both Pro Bowl and All-Pro consideration. (Production metrics below, ranked among all NFL safeties)

FS – Kurt Coleman (2015)
Interceptions 7 2nd
Interception yards 89 6th
Tackles 88 t-10th
Tackles for loss 5 t-7th
Passes Defended 9 t-8th
INT returns for TD 1 t-2nd

 

The secondary as a whole:

  • 15 interceptions
  • 8 forced fumbles
  • 7 fumble recoveries
  • 2% touchdown rate (1st in NFL)
  • 4 yards allowed/attempt (2nd in NFL)

The lack of secondary playmaking since 2015’s historic run has been staggering. Certainly, allowing Norman to seek employment elsewhere prior to the 2016 NFL Draft played a part. Former general manager Dave Gettleman was notorious for these unexpected little surprises, this time pulling the franchise tag on Norman at nearly the last minute, setting off a sense of justifiable panic among Panthers fans.

Gettleman has the occasional knack for ham-fisted dramatics, still exhibiting such practices today as the general manager of the New York Giants.

The 2016 solution? Draft a pair of corners, work them like dogs in OTA’s and camp, toss them into the lineup and hope for the best.

James Bradberry, the second-round selection from Samford, started week one, and played up to an acceptable level in his 13 starts. He led the team with 10 passes defended and snagged a pair of interceptions.

Daryl Worley, the third-round pick from West Virginia, started 11 games with an interception, but had trouble in coverage seemingly every game.

After Carolina allowed Atlanta to play pitch and catch for an idiotic 576 yards in week four, second-year cornerback Bene Benwikere was promptly fired for his role in “the Julio Jones 300 yards worth of catches” fiasco.

The season was lost, in large part due to a lost secondary. Tillman’s famous “Peanut Punch” worked wonders for his entire band of defensive back brothers in 2015. The secondary forced 8 fumbles on their road to Super Bowl 50.

A season later, with Tillman departed, Carolina’s DB’s managed one single strip, and zero recoveries.

Staggering.

Though 2017 ended with an 11-5 wildcard berth, generally considered a solid run, the secondary made a scant amount of impact plays. While maintaining a relatively healthy TD/ATT rate (4.5%), the defensive backfield combined for the same number of interceptions Coleman single-handedly collected in 2015: seven—that’s less that one every two weeks.

Last season was an enigmatic experience as an observer. The early emergence of rookie Donte Jackson—4 interceptions, 7 passes defended, a forced fumble and a sack sparked Carolina to a 6-2 start and put Jackson in the discussion for DROY honors.

Fittingly, Jackson wouldn’t intercept another regulation pass over Carolina’s 1-7 finish, though he did run back a “pick-two” of an ill-conceived Drew Brees two-point attempt, streaking an impressive full hundred yards on the play in week 15.

That game—against the Saints on Monday Night Football—revealed just how much potential this DB group possesses when properly coached/coordinated.

It was a dominant defensive performance against one of the league’s most explosive teams. For just the 22nd time in Drew Brees’ 279 career games, he threw an interception and was held without a touchdown.

Bradberry did fine work on the NFC’s leading receiver Michael Thomas, limiting him to 47 yards for the game, with the longest play 12 yards.

In fact, with head coach Ron Rivera calling the defense in both Saints matchups in 2018, Thomas had his two worst performances of the season relative to his season averages: 6.5 ypc (-3.06), 4.8 yd/target (-4.76), 75% catch rate (-10%) and no touchdowns.

 

Hard times on Thieves Ave.
Int FF FR TD% YPA
2015 15 8 7 3.2% 5.4
2016 11 1 0 4.4% 6.5
2017 7 3 3 4.5% 6.1
2018 11 2 2 6.1% 6.8

 

So, the question looms: Can the 2019 Panthers secondary get return to their 2015-like criminal form? Perry Fewell certainly hopes to help.

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A veteran defensive back specialist with 21 years of NFL coaching experience, Fewell joins Carolina as their new secondary coach. Former secondary coach Richard Rodgers will continue to assist with the new title of safeties coach.

It appears the Panthers will ride with Rashaan Gaulden at free safety. Gaulden, a third-round pick in 2018, saw limited action last season behind now-departed starter Mike Adams. Eric Reid will enter his first full season with Carolina with full command of the strong safety position.

Jackson and Bradberry are the logical fits on the outside at corner. That leaves the door open at nickelback with the departure of veteran Captain Munnerlyn.

Ross Cockrell, who suffered a brutal season-ending leg injury at camp last year, feels like the best fit in the slot. Cockrell, who last played with the Giants in 2017, had extensive slot corner experience from his days in Pittsburgh—in a 3-4 defense, no less.

Corn Elder and Kevon Seymour are in the mix for nickel, with safety Colin Jones as an occasional contributor in what’s been coined the team’s “Buffalo” package—a big nickel concept in which a safety with speed moves down into the slot.

In any event, there’s little question that the 2019 Carolina Panthers secondary must improve in their ability to take the football away, creating valuable field position advantages for the offense. Limiting big plays, particularly on 3rd and 7+, is just as critical—this was a devastatingly bad area for Carolina’s secondary in 2018.