Cam Newton, Ron Rivera creating buzz around Carolina Panthers

They're back!

That's what the NFL world is saying about the Carolina Panthers, who have reeled off three wins in four games to insert themselves into the playoff conversation.

Carolina (3-3) has reached the .500 mark by exhibiting a level of grit, toughness and tenacity that reminds me of the Panthers teams I helped build as a scout from 2003 to 2007. With a hard-hitting defense featuring a bevy of explosive athletes along the front seven and a developing franchise quarterback with the skills to carry the offense on his back, this squad has the look of a dark-horse contender in the NFC.

With the league suddenly buzzing about Carolina, I thought I would dig into the All-22 Coaches Film to see what's behind the team's improved play. Here's what I discovered:

1) Ron Rivera has quietly built one of the NFL's most dominant defenses.

It's fairly common for defensive-minded head coaches to assemble elite defenses, but the NFL world seems to be sleeping on the bully Rivera has built in Carolina. The Panthers rank near the top of the list in most major defensive categories, including scoring defense (second), total defense (third), rushing defense (fourth), passing defense (fifth) and takeaways (eighth). Those numbers speak to the dominance of a unit that is driven by a set of young, athletic defenders with the speed and quickness to wreak havoc from all angles. From an imposing defensive line capable of collapsing the pocket on four-man rushes to an athletic set of linebackers with the potential to get home on an assortment of blitz pressures from the second level, the Panthers have all of the weapons a defensive coordinator would desire in a unit.

While breaking down the film, I was impressed with the combination of speed, quickness and power exhibited by Panthers defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. The duo overwhelms opponents with first-step quickness, yet each player also flashes the strength to overwhelm blockers with power moves and bull rushes off the edge. Last season, Johnson and Hardy combined for 23.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. The relentless assault on quarterbacks has continued, with Johnson and Hardy accounting for eight of the team's 19 sacks in 2013.

Johnson, a seventh-year pro with 47 career sacks, has quietly developed into one of the top pass rushers in the game. He excels at using his combination of speed, quickness and snap anticipation to defeat blockers with a variety of finesse moves, including the speed-rush maneuver showcased in the video clip just above, taken from the Panthers' Week 1 matchup against Seattle. Johnson simply races past the offensive tackle, using a subtle "dip and rip" move to bend the corner and corral Russell Wilson. With Johnson, the Panthers can generate a consistent rush, even when dropping seven defenders into coverage.

Hardy, a fourth-year pro, enjoyed a breakout season in 2012, collecting 11 sacks and two forced fumbles in 10 starts. He is a dynamic pass rusher capable of winning with speed or power off the edges. The Panthers capitalize on his skills by frequently blitzing extra rushers from his side of the defensive line, thus creating one-on-one opportunities for Hardy against inferior blockers. Aligning extra defenders outside of Hardy creates uncertainty for the offensive tackle, which buys Hardy just enough time to win on a speed rush off the edge. Take a look at the video clip to the right to see how the blitzing tactic creates a big-play chance against the Rams.

The top defenses in the NFL are typically fueled by the play of the defensive line, but elite units also have playmakers at the second level -- Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis certainly fit the bill for the Panthers.

Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, is an instinctive defender with a natural feel for the game. He roams sideline to sideline with reckless abandon yet never appears to be out of control. He routinely rounds up the shiftiest runners in the open field, but he also shows the physicality and toughness to drill big backs in the hole.

Kuechly's combination of instincts and tackling ability is one of the reasons the Panthers excel against the run. However, his impact doesn't end there; I've been most impressed with his ability to make plays in coverage. Kuechly shows terrific anticipation, awareness and ball skills reading routes between the hashes while also maintaining vision on the quarterback.

The screengrabs below, taken from the Panthers' Week 5 matchup against Arizona, highlight Kuechly's skills in coverage. The Cardinals break the huddle in an empty formation with two receivers stacked in the slot. Kuechly is assigned to play zone coverage in the middle of the field:

At the snap, Cardinals receiver Andre Roberts will run a short crossing route, with Larry Fitzgerald running an angle route behind him. Kuechly recognizes the route and passes Roberts off to the No. 2 zone defender while awaiting Fitzgerald's angle route:

With Carson Palmer anticipating that Fitzgerald will come open immediately on the angle route, Kuechly is in the perfect position to steal an interception:

Davis, a ninth-year pro who has overcome three ACL injuries, is the designated playmaker on the second level. Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott frequently use Davis on blitzes to take advantage of his speed and athleticism off the edges. This strategy has been particularly effective this season, with opponents adjusting their pass protection to account for Johnson and Hardy off the edge. Consequently, Davis has racked up three sacks and a number of pressures through six games.

In the screengrab below, taken from the Panthers' Week 6 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings, Davis will come of the edge as part of a "Mike B" blitz, with Kuechly hitting the B-gap:

With Hardy crashing down inside and Kuechly attacking the B-gap, Davis gets a free run to the quarterback for an easy sack:

The Panthers' front seven deserves plenty of attention for dominating opponents this season, but I also have to point out the unexpectedly critical contributions of safety Mike Mitchell. The free-agent pickup has added toughness and physicality to the back end while also giving Rivera another defender to incorporate into the blitz package. Using more safety blitzes on passing downs allows the Panthers to blow up opponents' protection schemes and punish quarterbacks for failing to recognize the pressures in the pre-snap phase.

In the screengrab below, taken from Sunday's win over the Rams, Mitchell is walking down from his strong safety position to blitz off the edge. The Panthers have cleverly positioned two linebackers in the A-gaps, forcing quarterback Kellen Clemens to shrink the protection to take care of the gut pressure:

At the snap, the linebackers bail out to cover intermediate areas while Mitchell enjoys a free run to the quarterback for a sack and a forced fumble:

Given the tremendous performance and production of the Panthers' defense, Carolina's resurgence is no surprise.

2) Cam Newton is becoming a better game manager from the pocket.

The former No. 1 overall draft pick has been the subject of persistent criticism from fans in Charlotte, due to his subpar starting record (16-22). Heading into the season, Newton was challenged by Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman to take his game to another level. While acknowledging Newton's impressive individual accomplishments, Gettleman insisted it was time for his young quarterback to start winning games on a regular basis.

Newton needed to become a better game manager in all aspects. He needed to take care of the ball, to boost his accuracy and ball placement. He had to find a way to sustain drives and score points when reaching the red zone. Additionally, he needed to avoid the kinds of costly turnovers that would put the defense in a bind. Newton's career numbers (40 turnovers in 38 career games) suggest he is less turnover-prone than some of his contemporaries (Andrew Luck, for example, has 27 turnovers in 23 games, and Blaine Gabbert has 32 in 28). Still, the Panthers' high number of close losses magnified Newton's miscues. Consider the way a four-turnover debacle against the Cardinals in Week 5 led to speculation about his long-term future as the franchise quarterback in Charlotte.

Since that disappointing performance, Newton has bounced back, completing 35 of 43 passes for 446 yards and four touchdowns over two wins. Most importantly, he did not turn over the ball in either game and found a way to score points in the red zone.

Part of Newton's recent success can be attributed to his decision to finally take the check-down when deeper routes are covered. He's also scrambling more to pick up positive yards when receivers fail to come open downfield. This has allowed the Panthers to stay ahead of the chains and avoid the kinds of long-yardage situations that play into the hands of defenders.

If Newton can remain patient and continue adhering to the "dink and dunk" strategy that opponents are forcing him to adopt, he could help the Panthers surge back into contention in the NFC South, especially with winnable games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons over the next two weeks.

3) Rivera's newfound "riverboat" personality has been a spark.

Head coaches with defensive backgrounds often struggle to shed their conservative ways after ascending to the top position. After years of adhering to the traditional strategies of ball-control offense, with field position coveted at a premium, defensive-minded coaches traditionally balk at taking risks. This is reflected not only in their preferred offensive philosophies (run-heavy game plans offer fewer chances to give up negative plays and/or turnovers), but also when they're forced to consider calculated gambles on fourth downs in key moments. Whereas their offensive-oriented counterparts are often willing to bet the offense will find a way to move the chains when the game is on the line, defensive coaches are more likely to punt and rely on their defense to get a stop.

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Rivera has definitely subscribed to this theory throughout his tenure in Carolina. Since the start of 2011, only John Fox (another defensive-minded coach) has attempted fewer fourth-down conversions than Rivera. This has played a major role in Rivera's 2-14 record in games decided by seven points or fewer.

Consider what happened against the Bills in Week 2. Facing a fourth-and-1 and clinging to a 20-17 lead with less than two minutes to play, Carolina elected to kick a field goal -- and the Bills subsequently drove 80 yards for the winning score. The game played out like two close losses from 2012, when the Panthers allowed the Falcons and Bucs to steal contests that were essentially over.

After the Bills game, Rivera seemingly tweaked his fourth-down philosophy, gambling on five tries in the Panthers' next three games. The offense converted on three of those attempts, with another possible conversion derailed by a Brandon LaFell drop in Arizona. While it's true that each of those attempts occurred in the first half, the fact that Rivera trusted his offense to pick up the necessary yardage raised the confidence level of the unit. With Newton and several other young players feeding off the energy spawned by the conversions, the Panthers got off to faster starts in each of those games.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks

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