SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers’ secondary is eager to finally break out from the shadows of the perennially strong front seven this season.
They may finally have the personnel to do that.
The Panthers have finished in the top 10 in defense the last three seasons largely because of a strong — and deep — front seven that can get to the quarterback without having to overload on blitzes.
This offseason the front office looked to upgrade the back end.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman added three experienced veteran defensive backs to go along with three returning starters, bringing more talent and leadership to a group that is often viewed as an afterthought.
Safety Roman Harper said it’s time to change the perception the Panthers are winning “despite” the play of the secondary.
“So often this team is caught up in the front seven, front seven, front seven,” safety Roman Harper said. “I don’t see why this back four to five can’t be really good.”
Harper, entering his 10th season, was by far the most experienced member of the Carolina secondary last season.
Now he has plenty of elder statesmen around him.
The Panthers added free agent cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Chris Houston and safety Kurt Coleman to the mix this offseason.
Tillman, who is expected to start opposite Josh Norman, is a 12-year NFL veteran who has started 152 games and been to two Pro Bowls. Houston and Coleman have a combined 12 years of NFL experience with 123 starts between them.
“I thought we added very well to the secondary,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
Combine those newcomers with Josh Norman, who the Panthers view as a shutdown corner, talented young nickel back Bene Benwikere and returning starters Harper and Tre Boston, and Rivera feels like they have the right pieces in place.
Rivera said Tillman, who is looking to put two injury-plagued seasons behind him, has already had a huge impact on the team’s younger cornerbacks, working as an on-field mentor.
Harper couldn’t agree more.
“He’s got so much energy, so much juice, and I understand why he’s been so successful and such a great player for so long,” Harper said. “He’s probably one of the smartest corners I’ve ever played. He understands every bit of the defense. He’s very, very detailed oriented. Just having him around here gives me confidence.’”
He also has a measure of confidence.
And that borderline cockiness seems to have become catchy this offseason.
Norman pegged himself as one of the NFL’s top 10 cornerbacks in the league, although he’s never been to a Pro Bowl. Still, he said he’s one of the few guys who can shutdown receivers like Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and Dez Bryant.
And he disagrees with the notion the secondary is a group of non-name players.
“I’m not a no-name guy,” Norman said. “I know who I am. I’m Josh Norman. I’m not a no-name.”
Norman said it’s time for the secondary to emerge.
“We have some dominant defensive linemen, but you can lose a game real quick in this league with your back seven,” Norman said.
Harper said Carolina’s defensive front seven, led by linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson, certainly is deserving praise and doesn’t want to take anything away from them. But he’s anxious for the secondary to be considered among the best in the league, too.
“We’re trying to make this defense better,” Harper said. “We’re trying to complete it and bring it all together. We want to win not in spite of (the secondary), but because of us.”
Said Norman: “We are capable of doing some crazy, wonderful things. And this is the year we can get over that hump and do that.”