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Big changes for the Carolina Panthers defense and special teams for both rookies and veterans alike this season

 By Zach Goins

August 11, 2020

The Panthers’ defense will look a lot different when it finally hits the field this year.

The transformation began back in January when new head coach Matt Rhule was hired, bringing along defensive coordinator Phil Snow and a whole new scheme to Carolina. Snow and Rhule go way back, with stops at Baylor, Temple and UCLA together. In fact, Rhule has never won a game as a head coach without Snow as his defensive coordinator.

All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly announced his retirement on January 14, 2020. One of the many changes for the Panthers this season. Photo: Alex Cason

Shortly after the new hires arrived, seven-time All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly announced his surprise retirement– but he wasn’t the only veteran presence to leave the Panthers’ D during the offseason. Big names like defensive backs James Bradberry and Eric Reid, as well as pass rushers Mario Addison, Gerald McCoy and Bruce Irvin all parted ways with the team during free agency, leaving massive holes across the defense.

In April’s NFL Draft, the Panthers used all seven selections to pick up defensive players, headlined by the hulking defensive tackle out of Auburn, Derrick Brown, with the seventh overall pick. 

Now, just over a month from kickoff, we’re finally getting to find out how this new defense is coming along. According to veteran defensive end Stephen Weatherly, a free agent addition from the Vikings, it sounds like the unit is headed in the right direction.

“The sky is the limit,” Weatherly said Tuesday during a Zoom press conference. “The level of proficiency that we’re showing with a brand new defense for everyone, I’m really liking it. Our level of communication, our ability to understand how one another plays, is everything. I think it’s going to be a really good defense, and I think we’re going to be able to execute early on.”

Weatherly has a point. It doesn’t matter if you’re new to Carolina like he is, a rookie like Brown, or a veteran Panther player, everyone is starting from scratch in Snow’s scheme. While COVID-19 has kept the team from putting on the pads and truly practicing so far during this training camp, Weatherly said the slower ramp-up period this season has proven to be a blessing in disguise when it comes to learning a new defense.

Walk-throughs, meetings and toned-down practices have helped rookies and new veterans alike become more accustomed to Snow’s scheme before things really get going.

“We get to take time to have days that are emphasizing just communicating and how we play through fits, things of that nature,” Weatherly said. “This slower ramp-up period is right up my alley. It helps iron out mistakes.”

Despite being new to Carolina, Weatherly, a fifth-year player, will be relied on as a veteran presence along a young defensive line. So far, Weatherly said he’s liked what he’s seen from the young guys, praising second-year edge rusher Brian Burns as well as Brown.

Second-year edge rusher Brian Burns. Photo: Alex Cason 

“He very much knows how to use his body, how to position his body to get past the tackle for pass rush,” Weatherly said of Burns. “In the run game, he may not look overly big, but he’s very strong, very confident, plays behind his hands, so he sets good edges.”

For Brown, one word came to mind.

“He’s big. Like, I’m big, but he’s big,” Weatherly said. “He does not move like he’s big, which is always a great thing. Once again, learning how one another plays, that’s what’s going to determine how well we play as a defense, because we definitely have pieces. Believe that.”

New Faces On Special Teams 

The defense won’t be the only unit fans will have to reacquaint themselves with this season.

At the end of July, the Panthers announced punter Michael Palardy will spend the year on the reserve/non-football injury list after tearing his ACL in the offseason. As a result, the team signed undrafted rookie Joseph Charlton out of South Carolina to fill in as both punter and holder. 

Two days later, the team released veteran kicker Graham Gano, who spent eight seasons with the Panthers. Gano missed the entirety of the 2019 season with an injury to his left leg and was replaced by rookie Joey Slye. Now, it’s all but certain Slye will take over the team’s kicking duties on a more permanent basis.

While Charlton– and Slye to an extent– may be new to Carolina, they aren’t to each other.

“Joe (Charlton) actually works with one of the kicking coaches I’ve worked with since I was probably a junior, senior in high school, so we’ve been able to cross paths a couple times,” Slye said. “To be able to get a rhythm with him, it only took a couple days. We just had to get the situation between him, (long snapper) J.J. (Jansen) and me primed up right. Once we did that, we’ve been doing pretty well.”

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