CHARLOTTE – Panthers’ players and coaches see it, a flash at a time. Maybe it’s a play, or a series. Sometimes it’s as much as a half, and occasionally most of a game.
But if there’s a trend that’s presented itself over the second half of the season for the Panthers, it’s that a young defense thrown together on the fly is beginning to get it, starting to show progress that hints at potential.
Part of that promise is a simple function of being so young, but also that there’s a chance at continuity. Head coach Matt Rhule has mentioned several times in recent weeks that 10 of the defense’s 11 starters will be back next season, and even the 11th guy can see it.
Asked how soon the Panthers could be delivering on that hope, veteran cornerback (and soon-to-be free agent) Rasul Douglas made it clear.
“Fast,” Douglas replied directly. “I honestly feel like the Packers game, even with the loss, that game showed us exactly who we are. That second half showed us we can beat a great offense. We just have to do our jobs and take in what (defensive coordinator Phil) Snow and those guys tell us. I feel that’s who we are. Since then, we’ve been showing that’s who we are.
“I feel like next year, I wouldn’t be surprised if this team can win a division and stuff like that.”
That’s a weighty expectation, and a significant leap from where they were at the beginning of the year. When you spend an entire draft on defense, it’s clear that you see it as an issue that needed to be addressed. So, welcome rookies, sit over there in that videoconference and meet your new teammates and the new coaches and the new scheme that the veterans don’t know either. Why anyone would have thought it would look different is the real mystery.
The Panthers lead the league with 264 defensive tackles by rookies, and had 3,256 defensive snaps played by first-year players. Ten different rookies have played defense this year, with six of them starting at least one game.