Ranking the Carolina Panthers’ Top Five Defenses

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CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 16: A.J. Klein #56, Luke Kuechly #59 and Thomas Davis #58 of the Carolina Panthers against the Atlanta Falcons during their game at Bank of America Stadium on November 16, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Atlanta won 19-17. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Carolina Panthers’ defense is looking completely different for the first time in five years. Of course, there have been different variations of a similar-looking team during that time but the staple parts were the same. Thomas Davis was released in January of 2019, Luke Kuechly retired in January of this year, Mario Addison went to the Buffalo Bills, and that’s just a few of the guys that were such a key part. The defense is much younger this year and might be the worst in the NFC South. They plan to go back to a 4-3 defense, from the 3-4 defense they ran last season. Though they’re a lot younger, they might surprise people. As the Panthers get set for a new season, we’re ranking the Panthers’ top five defenses.

Ranking the Carolina Panthers’ Top Five Defenses

5. 2008 defense

Ranking the Panthers’ top five defenses, let’s start with the ’08 defense. It ranked fifth because although it was good, they did lose in the divisional round of the playoffs.

Key players

It wasn’t the most experienced defense and it featured a young Thomas Davis (25) so not much leadership on that side of the ball. The group did feature a guy named Jon Beason who, at the young age of 23, led the team with 110 solo tackles. Julius Peppers was a sack master for them and proved to be a leader for the team. Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas were the star cornerbacks. They were ball hawks that stayed on the ball constantly creating problems down the field. Charles Johnson and Damione Lewis, along with Ma’ake Kemoeatu, held down the middle and edge of the front line.

The ’08 Panthers had their struggles and the season didn’t go the way they wanted it to but that defense was solid that year.

4. 2005 defense

Next on the list in ranking the Carolina Panthers’ top five defenses, let’s look at the ’05 team.

This Panthers defense showcased John Fox‘s abilities as a fourth-year head coach. Since they are historically known for their defensive mind, it’s no wonder the former defensive coordinator was chosen for the job.

Key players

Ken Lucas had just started with the Panthers after a mediocre season with the Seattle Seahawks. In 2004 though, the year before arriving in Charlotte, he intercepted six times. The next year, it was much of the same. He also recovered a fumble against the New York Jets that he took 24 yards. His fire was something that the defense needed and welcomed.

Gamble and Will Witherspoon each returned interceptions for touchdowns during this season for 61 and 35 yards respectively.

Peppers brings the heat

At this point in his career, Peppers was in his fourth season and had recorded at least five sacks each of those, including 12 his rookie season. He was always a big presence because of how dominant he’s always been on the field. In ’05, his 10.5 sacks kept the league on notice. His active hands contributed seven deflected passes and his massive stature created two forced fumbles.

The ex-factor was Dan Morgan who, much like Kuechly, had a short career. He didn’t have as many stats as some of the others but he gave everything he had in every game he played. His three sacks that season were critical to the ’05 defense because he was another person team’s had to keep an eye on.

That Panthers defense took them to the NFC championship, losing to Lucas’ former team. Not the way they wanted to end the season but they are still in the top five.

3. 2003 defense

When it comes to ranking the Carolina Panthers’ top five defenses, the decision usually sways toward those teams that made it to the super bowl. Take, for instance, the ’03 team.

This was the first season the Panthers went to the super bowl which was impressive for Fox, then only in his second year as head coach. Of course, the offense was one that was unmatched by many–Steve Smith, Stephen Davis, Ricky Proehl, and the rookie Jordan Gross–helped catapult that team.

Fox put into place a defense that matched that offense’s fire that year.

Key players

Third-year defensive tackle Kris Jenkins played a major role on that line along with Peppers, and Mike Rucker. That wall of a defensive line allowed for very few people the ability to get through. That was also assuming the quarterbacks weren’t getting up from the ground. Peppers was only 23 that year but made big plays when the team needed him to. His blocked field goal against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was only part of the modest damage he did that year.

Rucker had 12 sacks, one forced fumble, and 48 solo tackles. He failed to show up during the super bowl, much like the rest of the defense. He was a pro bowler, though, a title he earned due to his savage play on the field during the regular season.

Terry and Reggie who?

The lesser-known names, but ones that were just as important, were Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin. They didn’t pad the stats but they were considered the kings of coverage because of their ability to do just that on the field. Cousin with his four deflected passes, two sacks, and four tackles for losses complemented Howard’s stats.

This was such a good defense but a missed field goal by John Kasay late in the game kept the Panthers–and this defense–from winning it all. But they would get another shot.

2. 1996 defense

Dom Capers ran the ’96 squad like a well-oiled machine. They had their flaws, as did all teams, but that defense had some of the greatest players to wear a Panthers jersey on that roster. When ranking the Carolina Panthers’ top five defenses, one must always consider the length of time a team has to develop. With it being just the second season in franchise history for the boys, they needed to put the league on notice, and that this defense would be a force for years to come.

Key players

Kevin Greene, Sam Mills, and Lamar Lathon were the heavy-hitters on the defense in ’96. All three were pro bowlers that season and had the stats to back it up.

Let’s be honest, Greene didn’t shy away from being a playmaker on the field and it didn’t matter what team he played for. He didn’t join the Panthers until that year, though his career started in 1985 with the Los Angeles Rams. As a bonafide sack machine, he led all Panthers’ that season with 14.5 of them as a linebacker. It wasn’t just the sacks that got him the pro bowl nod, of course. Add to that three forced fumbles; a recovery on one of those that he took 66 yards for a touchdown, and you’re looking at one of the greatest linebackers the Panthers has ever seen.

Mills proved size didn’t matter

Mills was quite the small guy but he used the moniker to fuel his fire throughout his career. He only stood 5 feet 9 inches physically but had the heart and soul of a giant. He fueled that defense in many ways. His 5.5 sacks proved not only to the league but also to himself, that size didn’t matter. The ’96 season was the only pro bowl Mills ever saw but more than that, he wanted to take the team as far as he could. Two fumble recoveries and one touchdown later, that’s exactly what he did.

Lathon proved his worth

Lathon, the third defensive player on that roster to get a pro bowl nod, played opposite Greene on the right side. They were such a force because the quarterbacks had to watch both sides if they wanted to avoid the sack. His 13.5 that season, was a career-best.

The Panthers fell short of Super Bowl XI well because of Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers who became champions that year. Not a bad way to go out.

1. 2015 defense

What makes a defense great is when all the pieces of the puzzle fit just so that no matter where the opposing-team offense goes, there’s always an answer for it. That’s why ranking the Carolina Panthers’ top five defenses puts this team at number one.

The’ 15 Panthers played a decibel higher than the rest of the league for most of the season.
It was the perfect storm–an electric offense, a stingy defense, and a coaching staff trying to make franchise history. The coaching staff featured some of the greatest coaches in the team’s history including Bills’ current head coach, Sean McDermott, who probably got his current job because of his work on the defense that year.

Key players

The defense was way loaded in ’15. Kawann Short held it down for the line with an impressive 11 sacks on the right edge. Although he suffered back spasms that kept him out of the first two preseason games, he was named Pro Football Focus’ top defensive tackle through the first seven weeks of the regular season. However, he failed to show up during their super bowl bout that year.

Ealy’s super bowl performance

Kony Ealy was the superstar during Super Bowl 50 which was the opposite of Short. He was quiet most of the season when it came to sacks but showing up in the super bowl with 3, was something the Panthers desperately needed. He didn’t play much after that season but to Panthers fans, he became a household name.

Dynamic Duo

Kuechly and Davis were huge parts of the defense for several years together but it seemed like ’15 was special to them. If there were ever two guys who deserved a championship more, it was them. Kuechly was the quarterback of that defense. He could be placed anywhere on the field and if a player needed to be tackled, he was there. Davis didn’t disappoint either. He and Kuechly combined for 15 tackles for losses and 17 quarterback hits. Not to mention they combined for 151 solo tackles.

Super Bowl 50 came down to whose defense played better and though the Panthers had a good one, it was no match for the Denver Broncos. They lost that game but they still came in at number one as the best defense in franchise history.

New coach, new team

Coach Rhule will have work to do with the new, young defense the Panthers will likely have this season. One thing to note about the team is that historically defense if it’s an issue, doesn’t stay that way for long.

If Phil Snow is up to the task, he could build one of the Panthers’ next great defenses.

Main Image: Embed from Getty Images

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