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The Panthers defense doesn’t scare quarterbacks anymore

You can’t play good defense if you can’t get to the quarterback. Stephen White & Ryan Van Bibber discuss the state of the Panthers defense in this week’s conversation.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Van Bibber: We talked a little about the Panthers on the podcast this week, specifically their secondary and some terrible offensive line play.

They pretty clearly outsmarted themselves a little bit letting Josh Norman go this offseason. And what a dumbass way to do it. They had gave him the franchise tag and then pulled it because they reportedly couldn't come close to agreeing on a long-term deal. Then, they decided to go with an inexperienced secondary, and that's not working out all that well as Julio Jones and his 300 receiving yards made clear.

So we know the secondary sucks, but my question is what happened to the front seven of that defense. Last year and the year before that, they were so good. I don't wonder if that lulled the Panthers' front office into a false sense of security, thinking that the d-line and the linebackers were good enough that they could go cheap among the defensive backs.

There's obviously a limit to that theory. That was a stifling defense a year ago, and it's just kind of okay now. Is it just me or is the front seven not as productive as it was over the last two years?

Stephen White: Well, let me put it this way, through four games the Panthers only have nine sacks as a team, and of those nine, only two of them are are from starters. If you want to include Mario Addison then since he plays so much on passing downs that would give you three, but the fact that neither of Carolina's starting defensive ends in Kony Ealy, whom I actually picked to have a breakout player this year, nor Charles Johnson have a sack so far is a huge problem. As you pointed out the Panthers decided to go cheap this year at the cornerback position after they rescinded the franchise tag on Norman and a young secondary needs pass rush pressure to help relieve some of the burden off of them. The fact of the matter is that it doesn't matter how much talent you have on the back end if the opposing quarterback has all day, but that's especially true when you have a bunch of guys are who are still wet behind the ears back there.

But this whole situation, much like the fact that the offensive line still wasn't upgraded in the offseason, once again falls back on GM Dave Gettleman.

Most of the problems the Panthers have had so far this season involves personnel choices that people have questioned going all the way back to last offseason. As I mentioned on the podcast Cam Newton's superb play covered up a lot of holes on that team last season, but that shouldn't have given Gettleman the impression that he was right all along.

Let's not forget that the Panthers were so concerned with their pass rush in the middle of last season that they traded for an aging Jared Allen in hopes for an upgrade. Even if Gettleman thought, as I did, that Ealy would be a bigger factor as a pass rusher this season that was no reason not to o out and try to find other free agents to sign just in case it didn't work out that way. Now Ealy was banged up in the preseason and still may not be quite 100 percent, but that's no excuse.

Once the organization decided to let Norman walk that put an even bigger impetus on them being able to generate a better pass rush this season than they had in 2015 but other than drafting a defensive tackle, a position that was already pretty stout for the Panthers, Gettleman didn't do much of anything to try to get that accomplished.

To put it in perspective, I saw a Dolphins beat writer complaining, misguidedly in my opinion, about Mario Williams — whom Miami signed in the offseason and whom the Panthers were also in the hunt for — but at the very least Williams has a sack on the season. I don't know if there is another trade to be had that would help the Panthers upgrade their pass rush this season, but I don't see how things get much better for them on defense the rest of the way if they can't generate a better pass rush.

I do believe that Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are still playing at a high level at linebacker, and some other guys are holding their own as well, but you just cannot be a good, let alone dominant defense in the NFL these days if you can't disrupt the opposing quarterback. Period.

The Seahawks got their shit together

SGW: On another note, we have talked a lot about some very good defenses this season, but I think we might not be talking enough about one in particular: the Seahawks.

At this point I think most people, myself included, just expect the Seahawks to be dominant on defense so maybe we aren't as impressed with their continued high level of play as we should be at times, but those guys are still balling this season. Right now they are second in the league in average total yards given up per game, tied for second in the league in sacks with 12, and tied for third in scoring defense surrendering only 13.5 points a game. It’s true that so far the offenses they have played aren't exactly juggernauts, but not giving up more than 18 points in any of the first four games is still damned impressive to me, especially with some of the struggles their offense had the first two weeks.

Pete Carroll recently said that this might be the best Seahawks team he has had which made me frown up a little bit since Marshawn Lynch is gone and the offensive line has been hot garbage at times this season. In his answer, he focused on the development of Russell Wilson and other players on offense to justify that belief, but I'm wondering if this might not be the best defense he has had, too. Now after it looks like the Seahawks have gotten their shit together the last two weeks I have to say that they look scary good right now.

What do you make of the Seahawks defense in particular this season and do you think it’s possible everyone might be overlooking that 3-1 team because we are just accustomed to them being so good now whereas the hot starts from the Vikings, Eagles, and Falcons are a little more surprising?

RVB: Was it just me, or did it seem like the Seahawks offensive line played a lot better last week? Shit, they even got Jimmy Graham involved in the offense. I don't remember the last time that happened. They scored just 15 points in the first two weeks of the season, which coincided with Russell Wilson's ankle injury. And over the last two weeks, they've scored 64 points. They figured something out, and they did it with that same offensive line.

But you're right, that defense has been outstanding, and nobody's really talking about it, except for us, now, I suppose. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas were talking Monday about how this felt like the defense from their Super Bowl-winning season. It might honestly be better. I just glanced at the Football Outsiders adjusted measurement for their defense, and this year's group is on par with the one from 2014. Not that you really need the numbers to know that; all you have to do is turn on the television and watch them play.

It's still weird that they lost to the Rams in Week 2, but that seems to be a regular thing with them. And it was a 9-3 thriller! Sometimes I think we've just gotten so accustomed to the Seahawks being good, we just overlook it and only talk about them when they're bad (like when they lose to the Rams) or when Russell Wilson is saying weird shit in the media. I'll you one thing, when December rolls around and we're talking about which teams are still good and in contention for a deep postseason run, I'll wager that the Seahawks are way more likely to be in that conversation than the Eagles or Falcons.

Are the Raiders as good as their record?

RVB: Maybe there's something about being on the West Coast that just doesn't get a team talked about all that much. Which is why I'm wondering about the Raiders. Del Rio took over defensive play calling duties after their Week 2 loss to the Falcons, and they've won two games since then. Of course, one of those games was a one-score difference over the Titans and then slipping by the Ravens, 28-27 in a game that nobody looked like they wanted to win.

I know we talked about the Rams and the Texans being a surprising 3-1, but do the Raiders belong in that category too? They have a much better looking roster than either of those teams, but there's just something that's not very convincing about them so far. Do you think they're progressing? Are they going to be in the conversation as a contender next month?

SGW: I wouldn't say the Raiders are a surprising 3-1 because a lot of folks, us included, talked about how they might end up winning the AFC West this year before the season started. At the same time it just feels like they have been a little disappointing in the first four games even if they have won three of them.

As you mentioned, they beat a bad Saints team on a two-point conversion at the end of the game, a mediocre Tennessee team by a touchdown, and an ailing Ravens team by one point. In none of those games did they look particularly dominant. Their defense is dead-ass last in total yards given up, even with Del Rio having taken over the reigns and they are 22nd in the league in scoring defense as well.

I also feel like in some ways people have put some unreal expectations on some of the Raiders young players. Amari Cooper has played well, but doesn't have a touchdown. Khalil Mack hasn't been bad either but he "only" has one sack so far. To hear some of the talk before the season started you would have thought both guys would be tearing up the league statistically right now, and I really believe that because they aren't some folks feel a bit "let down" by their performance.

At the end of the day, however, you are what your record says you are. While the Raiders haven't blown anybody out the fact that they have found a way to win three out of four games is in and of itself a sign of progress from last year. Even without playing great football they are finding ways to close out games and that kind of experience can be invaluable the rest of this season. It also turns out that the Falcons, who beat the Raiders after getting their asses kicked by the Bucs in Week 1, are actually a pretty good team themselves. So while people may have knocked the Raiders for losing that game at the time, maybe it wasn't such a bad loss after all.

I'm not ready to say that the Raiders are going to definitely go to the playoffs or anything, but I will say that in hindsight they are pretty much where most thought they would be after four games, even if it wasn't always pretty. The good news for Raiders fans is that they have won while not playing all that great which means if they can improve over the course of the season and guys like Cooper and Mack start producing a little more, then those dominant, blowout type wins should soon come.

Kaepernick time for the 49ers?

SGW: Switching gears a bit, it’s being reported today that the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick are in the process of renegotiating his contract so that they can take out some of the injury guarantees. This is of course being seen as a move meant to clear the way for Kap to play soon, maybe even next week, without the team having to worry about being on the hook for big money should he get hurt. It looks like a move that had to be made after watching San Francisco starter Blaine Gabbert struggle yet again last night to hit receivers running wide open down the field and some of the 49ers faithful chanting "We want Kap" during their loss to the Cardinals.

Now anybody who has been listening to our podcast this offseason knows that I have been looking forward to seeing what Kap can do in Chip Kelly's offense for months. He had offseason surgeries that kept him out of most offseason practices and then his arm got fatigued in camp causing him to miss some preseason games. Kap seems to be completely healthy now, however, and I personally think he is going to make the most of the opportunity whenever it materializes. At the very least I don't think he could do any worse than what Gabbert has shown so far.

Where do you stand on Kap playing at this point? I know a lot of folks will focus on his kneeling for the anthem and everything that has come after it, but strictly from a football standpoint do you think this move will actually help the 49ers or is it just something they had to do because Gabbert was just that bad?

RVB: Wait, I thought Kaepernick was dangerously underweight? At least that's what I gathered reading the well-placed leaks from the organization. It's clear now that the 49ers more concerned about potentially having to spend the money they already agree to in the first version of Kap's contract than anything else. I forget sometimes just what a sorry state the leadership of that franchise is in. When they made that deal with Kap in the first place, everything seemed to be trending in the right direction. But here we are.

Going back to training camp and the preseason, I wonder if Kaepernick might have gotten a shot sooner had he been healthy. Then again, maybe not given the whole contract thing. Now, with that "obstacle" cleared, the team can finally get him on the field. Just from a talent standpoint, I would think Kaepernick is a better option that Blaine Gabbert anyway.

My concern with the 49ers playing Kap is how he meshes with Chip Kelly and his system, the same reason we're looking forward to what he can do there. I wonder if Kelly is flexible enough to work with Kap. It seems like if he keeps things fairly simple, then it should make the 49ers a little more competitive.

If it doesn't work, I suspect that'll be the last we see of Kap in San Francisco (and that may be the case anyway). But if that won't ignite tension between Kelly and the team's ownership. At the very least, it should make the 49ers more fun to watch.