Following his introductory press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule stated that he was open to a running 4-3 defense in Carolina.
On Wednesday afternoon in the practice bubble, new Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was officially introduced. Rhule agreed to a seven-year, $60 million deal earlier this week, tying him to the franchise through the 2026 season. During his opening press conference, most questions from the media revolved around Cam Newton and the long-term vision for the team. Following the introduction, though, Rhule met with the local media, stating that one of his top priorities is fixing the defense, and that he “leans” towards a 4-3 look. Carolina had utilized a traditional 4-3 alignment dating all the way back to the turn of the century before converting to a 3-4 prior to this past season.
Carolina’s switch to the 3-4 last season was an attempt to get faster and revamp the pass rush; however, it resulted in a horrible run defense.
Following a disappointing late-season collapse in 2018, one of the changes that then-head coach Ron Rivera made ahead of 2019 was to convert to a 3-4 front. Doing so forced defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Kawann Short to play exclusively on the outside–something they had never done before–with Dontari Poe responsible for plugging the middle of the line of scrimmage. Behind them, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson were responsible for filling gaps, in theory shutting down all opponent running lanes.
What ended up happening though, was that Kuechly and Thompson (Kuechly in particular) had to deal with offensive linemen in their faces. To put it more simply, rather than be able to move freely and pursue the ball as in years past, they were forced to evade and get off of blocks before they could go after the ball. That, coupled with a host of injuries, led to the Panthers giving up a whopping 143.5 rushing yards per game, which ranked fourth-worst in the NFL. To make matters worse, Carolina gave up league-highs in rushing touchdowns and yards per carry. Part of it can be attributed to season-ending injuries to Short and Poe; however, a lot of it had to do with the system change.
A reversion back to the 4-3 would put 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns in a difficult situation.
When the Panthers converted to the 3-4 defense before the start of the 2019 season, they vowed to become athletic and more aggressive in the pass rush. The conversion led to the exit of former Panthers great Thomas Davis, and led to the drafting of edge rusher Brian Burns last April. Burns was impressive in a limited amount of playing time this past season; however, when the Panthers brought in extra defensive backs, they often switched to a four-lineman front, which brought Burns to the sideline.
He proved in his rookie year that while he is a valuable pass rusher, he isn’t a great fit in a 4-3 lineup. In other words, he’s not your traditional hand-in-the-dirt defensive end. Because of that, a return to the 4-3 would put Burns in an awkward position moving forward, and makes Carolina’s first-round choice in 2019 seem like a waste. It’s possible that the Panthers could try to help him adapt to a new system, however, it’s much more likely that he’d be used purely in pass-rush situations. Even though a potential switch back to the 4-3 puts Burns in a bit of a bind, it still would be best for the team.
Rhule had experience with a 4-3 defense at Temple, and is open to running whatever system best fits the Panthers’ roster.
Throughout his time in the collegiate ranks, one of Rhule’s best qualities as a coach was his ability to adapt to his players. At Temple, adapting meant running two-tight end sets on offense with a 4-3 defense. At Baylor, his players were best suited for a more modern, spread-type offense and a 3-4 defense. Now with the Panthers, it seems as though he is once again willing to adapt to best fit his players’ skill-set.
During the same interview where he stated he “leans” towards the 4-3, Rhule also made it clear that he’s willing to tailor his system to whatever puts the roster in the best position for success. Based on 2019’s results, it appears as if a return to the 4-3 is in the team’s best interest. Fortunately for them, Rhule and potential defensive coordinator Phil Snow have a history of succeeding with a four-down front.