Riding some momentum to close the regular season, the Panthers won four of their final six games and improved from 2-14 in 2010 to 6-10, finishing in third place in the NFC South behind the Falcons and Saints. The gap between Carolina and the division leaders, which was so vast one year ago, has narrowed, and there's already buzz about head coach Ron Rivera's team being a potential playoff contender in ’12.
Part of the plan for making that happen will be working to get their defense, which ranked 28th in the league last season, closer to their seventh-ranked offense's level, but Rivera, a former NFL linebacker who moved up the coaching ranks as a defensive assistant, sounded very optimistic about that endeavor when PFW caught up with him this week.
"I hope people think we're not ready," he told PFW. "I really do because I think the biggest thing we have to do is grow, get our guys healthy again, put it together and then get going. I think we can. If (the defense) can pick it up with the way our offense has the ability to play, we can become a much more complete team."
The Panthers fell from 18th to 28th in yardage on defense in 2011 and finished with the sixth-most points allowed in the league (429). Injuries played a big part in Carolina's struggles on "D," and Rivera is counting on the healthy return of MLB Jon Beason, who suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in Week One, and also veteran free-agent addition NT Ron Edwards — who missed all of last season with a torn triceps — to bolster that unit.
"The biggest thing we missed was really just the continuity of having the same group start," Rivera said. "I think there was a stretch where only twice did we start the same exact defensive unit."
The personnel situation will be different for the Panthers in 2012. There could be some schematic tweaks on defense as well. They could look to add players this offseason that would give them more flexibility to use 3-4 looks to mix in with their 4-3 base.
"I think there's a place for (the 3-4)" Rivera said. "I really do. We started to experiment with it, but we had some guys get hurt."
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