3 steps to success: Can the Panthers secondary do more?

USA TODAY Sports

The team has a talented roster of perpetual underachievers. What can Carolina do this season to become a playoff team, and save Ron Rivera's job?

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson grew tired of seeing his team mired in mediocrity. He made the move in 2012 to fire longstanding general manager Marty Hurney, whose failing was a lack of organizational accountability, and near-undying loyalty to his players. This is the year Ron Rivera needs to prove he can turn his roster into a playoff team, and if he's unable to he'll be quickly out of a job too. Here's what the Panthers need to do in order to be successful in 2013.

Dave Gettleman took over as GM this offseason, and his job thus far has been about managing the team's woeful cap situation. His predecessor doled out some of the largest contracts in team history. It proved that the Panthers aren't cheap, but left them with a roster comprised of talented linebackers, running backs, defensive ends and little else.

The Panthers' success was solely tied to Newton, and if he was unable to play near-perfect football, they faltered.

In an era where the league is becoming more passing-oriented, the team was built under the guise of old-school football. This created dissonance on the offensive side of the ball where Cam Newton was asked to be the team's passer and its leading rusher. That all-or-nothing approach showed on Sundays. The Panthers' success was solely tied to Newton. If he was unable to play near-perfect football, they faltered.

2013 will be about trying to take steps forward, but while playing on the cheap -- hoping for contracts to expire in order to take major steps forward.

1. The secondary can bend, but they can't break

Gettleman came to Carolina from a defensive tradition with the New York Giants that emphasized pass rush over secondary -- believing that enough pressure can mitigate weaknesses in the defensive backs. To this end he drafted two defensive tackles in the first two rounds, and aims to pair them with two 10-sack defensive ends. It should make the front very aggressive.

The issue is in the backfield, where the Panthers have no real talent to speak of. Chris Gamble, the team's top corner, was released due to salary cap restraints, leaving them with a talent vacuum. Gettleman signed Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore, while retaining Captain Munnerlyn. This puts the team in a situation where their top three corners are all best suited to play in the nickelback role.

Cornerback is a concern, but the lack of reliable safety play exacerbates the team's issues. The Panthers hoped Haruki Nakamura was to be the answer at free safety. He failed and was subsequently relegated to special teams. The team now lacks a strong safety to pair with veteran Charles Godfrey, who moves back to be the last line of defense.

Carolina's defensive line will get pressure, but it will all be for naught if their secondary allows big cushions.

2. Mike Shula needs to prove he's no longer Mike Shula

Former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns. He drew the ire of Panthers' fans for his play calling, but he still offered the most offensive creativity the team had seen in over a decade.

That frustration came from the team's lack of a running game. Instead of leaning on their $80-million backfield, Newton became the focus on third down. The second-year quarterback did his best, but became ineffective as the team's primary option.

The Panthers elected to promote quarterbacks coach Mike Shula to the position, but he's proven to be uneven throughout his career. He's struggled outside of tutoring signal callers. Shula talks a big game about making the offense balanced, but there's no guarantee he'll be able to do it.

It would be a huge mistake to throw out the team's offensive creativity. They have to keep that in balance with smarter play calling. Shula must prove that he's not inept.

3. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short need to be as good as advertised

Boasting back-to-back Rookie of the Year players in Newton and Luke Kuechly, the Panthers seem to be doing something right in scouting. However, there's no guarantee they can keep this streak alive.

Having Kuechly is a heck of a safety valve, but the lack of reliable run stopping and pressure up the middle was the team's biggest defensive struggle in 2012. Defensive ends were able to make plays, but with the exception of Dwan Edwards' resurgence, they didn't have much talent to show in the middle.

Electing to take two defensive tackles was a bold move, but showed the Panthers' willingness to shore up their primary weakness.

Electing to take two defensive tackles was a bold move, but showed the Panthers' willingness to shore up their primary weakness. In turn, they're throwing all their faith into two rookies to be their stars. Both Lotulelei and Short could be asked to start next to each other.

If it works out, they'll be okay. If either hits the rookie wall, the defense is in trouble.

Ultimate answer

This team is waiting to take the next step, and could do it -- if they had cap space. The lack of quality free agents exposes Carolina's depth on both sides of the ball. It's a similar situation to 2012, where a spate of injuries could derail the season.

There's unquestionably more talent on the roster than a year ago, and the depth is better. A harder schedule and more pressure on Newton could lead the Panthers to a winning season, but see them once again falling short of the playoffs.

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