Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera stood huddled next to linebackers coach Steve Russ in the second quarter of last week’s loss at Tampa Bay.
And that was the “tell,” for those with a keen eye and an understanding of how helmet microphones are wired.
Rivera took over the defensive play-calling on Sunday, a day before demoting defensive coordinator Eric Washington to “front seven coach” in role but not in title.
His increased communication with Russ meant a direct line to middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the “quarterback” of the defense. That line is reserved for the defensive coordinator, because part of Kuechly’s job is to then communicate those calls to the rest of the defense.
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But to the players, there was a different “tell.” It was when a play call came through that was not in the Panthers’ original game plan.
“There was a call that we didn’t practice all week, and when it came in we were like, ‘Whoa,” safety Eric Reid said. “Then they told us that he had called that play. We knew something was up when that happened.”
Rivera followed that up with a couple more that weren’t originally designed for that week’s game.
“They were a part of our inventory, so I know our players know it,” he said on Thursday. “So as we were going through the game, the flow of the game, I just felt that I needed to call that, even though it wasn’t ‘up,’ it was in our inventory. And I knew that we could handle it.”
Rivera compared it to a quarterback calling an audible.
“I called a blitz that we got a play out of,” he said. “It’s those things that you know (the players) are capable of doing. And to me, it’s easy to pull back when you have veteran guys.”
Rivera will have to depend on his veterans for the rest of the season as he continues in the role.
But those veterans know they also have to step up to help fix Carolina’s defensive woes.
One even called an exclusive meeting about it a little over a week ago.
A players-only meeting
Linebacker Thomas Davis called a defensive players-only meeting during preparations for the team’s trip to Tampa Bay.
“Historically, we’ve been good around here defensively,” Davis said. “It’s important for us to continue to understand and know that this team’s success is revolved around how well we play on defense.”
Veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said Sunday that he felt, like several other team leaders, that the Panthers’ issues during a four-game skid were player-driven and not coach-driven.
And this defense’s issues have been so numerous, the Panthers’ former defensive identity has been in danger of being eclipsed.
“Around here, for a long time, we’ve had defense,” Munnerlyn said this week. “If you talk about the Carolina Panthers, of course you’re going to talk about Cam Newton and things like that. But you were always going to talk about the Panthers’ defense and how good it was.”
That was Davis’ message during the meeting.
“Let’s get back to that,” Munnerlyn said, quoting Davis. “Not no ‘Oh man, we’re playing the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton.’ What about their defense? ‘Oh, is their defense going to let them down this week?’ Let’s get back to putting fear in peoples’ heart. Letting them know that the Carolina defense is for real.
“That’s him, everybody knows that,” said Munnerlyn. “We know what we have to do, and that’s win games. Nobody cares how pretty it is, we just have to win football games...We have to focus in, laser down and we have to play. We don’t have any more time for error.”
Carolina’s players, said Munnerlyn, feel like they have to control what they can in order to win, because even if they win out, their postseason future is still out of their hands.
Rivera’s move to take over the defensive play-calling showed that he too wants to control as much as he can, with so much of the Panthers’ — and perhaps even his — fate looking murkier with each loss.
But in order for him to do so, others will assume more responsibility, and some parts will move a little bit differently.
Defensive adjustments, team adjustments
Rivera smiled at the prospect of one of his duties on Sunday, which is to communicate, via Russ, more with Kuechly than he does on a regular basis.
Kuechly already has a lot of responsibility. He even has the autonomy to change the call, make checks and stunt with the defensive line.
Most importantly, he does all of the “thinking,” so other guys don’t have to. Rivera said he wants his defense to play fast and limit mistakes, which he says happens by thinking less about each play.
“I got to watch probably the greatest middle linebacker in my era, Mike Singletary, do it,” Rivera, a former Chicago Bears linebacker, said. “And the thing that was most impressive to me, and I see similarities in Luke, is the way Mike got the information to everybody on the field. Mike could literally tell every (one of them) what they were supposed to do pre-snap. And when you know what you’re supposed to do, you play fast.”
Others on the sideline will see their roles increase, too.
Assistants who help with time outs and clock management will be thrust into the spotlight with Rivera’s focus largely elsewhere. The Panthers’ defensive staff will also have to adjust situationally, like it did Sunday, should Rivera get drawn into something that requires his full attention.
“Those are all things that I ask those guys to speak up, to give more information,” he said. “They have to be more aware. And I’m asking a lot of a lot of guys ...
“(Sunday) something happened and I had to deal with the referees, and Eric (Washington) went ahead and took over, went right back into play-calling mode, and then I came right back. But that’s what will be expected, everyone will have to be a bit sharper.”
On Sunday in Cleveland, Rivera will even find himself in a “throwback” game of sorts as the Panthers try to snap a four-game losing streak.
Because he’ll have so much on his plate as head coach and defensive play-caller, Rivera will give up almost complete offensive control to coordinator Norv Turner.
The stakes are different now, though. Before last week’s loss in Tampa Bay, a report by CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora said new owner David Tepper had grown frustrated with the repeated losing, and said Tepper might consider making organizational changes including at head coach.
Rivera didn’t want to comment on the report, but the next day, he publicly assumed Washington’s play-calling duties for the rest of the season and fired two defensive assistants, after a meeting with Tepper and general manager Marty Hurney.
When Rivera was a defensive coordinator in San Diego, Turner called the offensive plays as the head coach. The Chargers’ 13-3 season in 2009 helped solidify Rivera’s status as a future head coach.
Rivera, in a “defensive coordinator” role, could again find his future decided by how he performs in it.