Coordinators' Chat: How the Panthers got their rookies ready

Jeremy Chinn

CHARLOTTE – When the Panthers drafted seven defensive rookies in the spring, coordinator Phil Snow took a specific approach to getting them all ready.

"I told the guys coaching them that in the National Football League, if you draft a guy in the second round, third round, fourth round, first round — they're going to play and they need to play right away," Snow said Thursday.

It's easy to tell the Panthers' rookies have made an impact just from the snap counts. Second-round safety Jeremy Chinn is third on the team in defensive snaps (252) behind only veteran safeties Juston Burris and Tre Boston. First-round defensive tackle Derrick Brown has played 162 snaps (62.6 percent), fourth-round cornerback Troy Pride Jr. 122 (47.1 percent), and second-round defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos 61 (23.6 percent). Gross-Matos missed one game due to injury.

Part of getting those players ready was instilling a hard-nosed attitude from the time they were drafted.

"I think the biggest thing is having no excuses," Snow said. "I've stressed to them: The other team doesn't care who you are playing. They don't care if you have a rookie.

"I think the guys have grown up fast. And I think our vets have done a nice job of bringing them along and teaching them how to play and play at this level."

It does help when players put in the work. Snow noted the 22-year-old Chinn was in the building eating breakfast before the defensive coordinator arrived Thursday morning.

"He acts and does things a lot older than his age. You would think he's a veteran," Snow said of Chinn, who currently leads the league's rookies with 34 total tackles.

"I think that's a tribute to how he's been raised and brought up — at home and in football. I think the college coaches did a great job with him."

But players are naturally going to develop as the season goes on as they get more comfortable. Brown has recorded four tackles for loss in the Panthers' past two games, improvement Snow believes has to do with Brown's first few steps.

"He's recreating the line of scrimmage by getting off on the snap," Snow said. "Then he's a big, powerful man. He's using his hands much better. You're seeing that productivity now because of that."

The Panthers will need all their first-years to stave off the proverbial rookie wall later in the year. But through the season's first quarter, there's reason to feel good about the 2020 class.

"I'm real happy with their progress," Snow said.

SCORING AT AN ALL-TIME HIGH

Throughout the NFL, offenses have been remarkably efficient and performed at a record-setting pace through the first four weeks of the season.

According to NFL Research, teams have put up 52 performances of at least 30 points in the first four weeks, shattering the record set in 2013 when teams had 36 such games. In 2020, league points per game (51.3), offensive touchdowns per game (5.7), total yards per game (739.0), passing yards per game (499.6), and passer rating (96.5) are all on pace to break records set since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger. Data for third-down percentage dates back to just 1991, but at 43 percent, that's at an all-time high as well.

Offensive coordinator Joe Brady couldn't put a finger on just one reason for all the points.

"Nothing that comes to mind. I know there are some great offenses in this league," he said. "You look at the touchdown tapes across the league each week, I think the coaches across the league are just putting their players in position to have success and are doing a great job at it.

"Watching some of the throws these quarterbacks are making and watching these running backs just get in space, I think a lot of it just has to do with the game being at an extremely high level. And it's fun to watch."

But Snow thinks it might have to do with the environments in which 2020 games are being played.

"Normally offensively when you go on the road, it's really hard to run an offense, especially on third down or if you have to check (because of) the crowd noise," Snow said. "Well, we're not having any crowd noise. So when teams go on the road, they're not at a disadvantage on offense.

"We count on that crowd noise where they can't get to what they want, and it's hard to run their offense, and we don't have that right now. So I think that has led to some of the scoring."

The two coordinators approach the influx of points from different lines of thinking — one being on offense, the other on defense. But as long as the Panthers score one more point than their opponent, they probably don't much care how many total points there are in the game.

WIDE RECEIVER ROTATION

When looking at the Panthers' wide receiver snaps, DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, and Curtis Samuel have been on the field the most by a significant margin. But Seth Roberts (18.4 percent), Pharoh Cooper (13.9 percent), and Brandon Zylstra (7.9 percent) have gotten opportunities to play, too.

That playing time isn't just a product of the top three needing a breather. Roberts, Cooper, and Zylstra have all earned the right to be on the field.

"The way that our receivers came to work in training camp, I felt confident going into the season featuring five, six receivers," Brady said. "We found a vision for them and their skillsets."

The playing time hasn't necessarily translated to results so far, as Roberts is the only player of that group with a reception, and he has four for 31 yards. But as the Panthers continue their season, more opportunities could be coming for Cooper and Zylstra.

IMPORTANCE OF DOWNFIELD BLOCKING

The Panthers' wideouts blocking ability has been a key to their offensive success in 2020. Brady joked he could relate because that was his only job as a wide receiver at William & Mary. But getting a key block on a run is sort of like saying "thank you" to a running back for a passing play.

"I think you learn a lot about a football team if you watch wide receivers with how they block," Brady said. "When you turn on a touchdown pass to a wide receiver, and you watch Mike Davis picking up the protection. So you'd hate to put on tape when you have Mike Davis in the open field, and the wide receiver isn't making that block.

"You want to be that guy to make the touchdown block, and I think our wide receivers have that mentality."

Carolina is 18-32 all-time against Atlanta.

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