Despite being on its third defensive coordinator in three seasons, Carolina has been able to maintain much of the successful continuity on a franchise known for defense under the guidance of new guy Eric Washington.
Washington’s only new when it comes to his change in position, having taken over after coaching the defensive line for seven seasons. The two prior coordinators — Sean McDermott in 2016 and Steve Wilks last season — were hired as head coaches with Buffalo and Arizona, respectively.
“I don’t know how my philosophy differs from Steve,” Washington said. “I just know the things we’re emphasizing are things that are inherent to our system. We want to be an aggressive, attacking defense that creates negative plays. We want to bring the pressure with our front-four and complement that with our blitzes.
“I learned a lot of things from Steve and Sean and been influenced by coach (Ron) Rivera also, but in terms of comparing and contrasting my focus is just making sure we’re making progress. Every year is different. If I say we’re going to be the same, we may get left behind. So we have to grow and there’s some areas we targeted in the offseason we needed to see improvement.”
The most glaring area was the secondary, with Carolina retaining longtime veteran safety Mike Adams and third-year corner James Bradberry while not keeping a pair of former starters in safety Kurt Coleman and corner Daryl Worley. The Panthers ranked seventh in yards allowed (317.1) and tied 10th in points allowed (20.4), but were only 18th defending the pass (229.1) while third against the run (88.1)
The team retained all the most important pieces from its front seven, minus defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, but replaced him with mammoth veteran Dontari Poe, who has been impressing teammates and coaches during training camp.
“He’s not a one-trick pony,” Washington said. “When you look at a guy with that kind of size, your first thought is to maybe label him as a two-down player. Dontari Poe is a one-on-one rusher and can impact the passing game. When you think about him working with Kawann Short to provide that pocket push, to complement the edge rushers we have, that’s exciting to envision.”
Washington is still sorting out the best rotation in the secondary and said he’d have no qualms with starting a pair of rookies in cornerback Donte Jackson and safety Rashaan Gaulden if they emerge as the best options. A familiar face, former USC cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, has had a solid camp and while mainly used covering the slot could be pushing for some time on the outside.
Munnerlyn said he felt playing inside was the tougher of the two roles.
“A lot of guys don’t expect it to be so tough, but it’s tough in there,” Munnerlyn said. “When you’re outside you can eliminate a lot of the routes by splits and different things like that. Inside, you’ve got to be on our Ps and Qs. You’ve got to follow guys, things happen so fast, then you’ve got to be able to tackle.”
Washington added, “The great thing is we have flexibility with (Munnerlyn) playing either position. He has experience at either one. Obviously right now he’s playing a lot inside and gives us great short area quickness, he can blitz, and we like the matchup on the slot receiver, but in this business you never know.”