CHARLOTTE – The Panthers added former San Diego Chargers player Antwan Applewhite to the roster two weeks ago with the idea of having him help out at defensive end, but they had some other ideas as well.
"They told me they wanted me to play defensive end but that we could be doing some things here and there, switching to some 'under' fronts with me playing a little linebacker," Applewhite said. "Coach (Ron) Rivera knows that it's something I'm used to, so that's a comfort zone.
"We actually did pretty well with it in San Diego."
Last year in San Diego, with Rivera as defensive coordinator, the Chargers did better than "pretty well," ranking No. 1 in the NFL in total defense. Applewhite played a notable role in the success, starting 13 games at outside linebacker and posting a career-high 57 tackles.
While the Chargers employed a 3-4 defense (three defensive linemen, four linebackers), the Panthers are a 4-3 team (four defensive linemen, three linebackers).
But in Sunday's game at Atlanta, the Panthers did go to a 3-4 look for three plays, the first time they've used it at all.
"It was a small wrinkle. We'll see how big that package becomes as we move forward," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "We're always going to have that in our game plan because we have flexibility with our personnel and Ron's background.
"He and I got together on it over the summer, and it's something we wanted to evolve to, so we're going to have that in the game plan whether we use it or not."
Some of the players added to the roster since training camp possess qualities that are crucial to the 3-4. In addition to Applewhite - who looks like a defensive end but moves like a linebacker – defensive tackles Ronald Fields and Frank Kearse have the bulk often coveted for interior linemen in the 3-4.
Then there's Charles Johnson, who has excelled as a traditional defensive end in the 4-3 but who has shown his versatility of late by playing some defensive tackle in the 4-3 and then lining up at outside linebacker in the 3-4 against Atlanta.
"We only ran it a couple of times, but I think you can rush the passer a little bit better just by standing up because you can see things better," Johnson said. "It gives you a good mix-up in the game. Teams come out thinking you're going to run 4-3 and then you come out with the 3-4, it's a good mix-up."
Right now, that's all it is. The defense spent most its time in training camp learning the basics of the 4-3 philosophy McDermott brought from his days with the Philadelphia Eagles. Then, when injuries hit hard early in the regular season, the defense focused on meshing in the 4-3 with rotating personnel.
The defense just now has reached the beginning stages of evaluating the 3-4. which offers more angles for pressuring the quarterback and more options for handling pass-catching tight ends but increases the challenge of dealing with a strong inside running game.
McDermott said it's too early to tell if the 3-4 eventually could be the Panthers' featured alignment.
"We have to see how comfortable the players are, and also you look at your opponents in the division and outside of the division," he said. "I know (Rivera) feels very confident in the 3-4 and what it brings to the table and knows its strengths and weaknesses. And that's part of the reason that I came here - so we could merge our systems together."
However often the Panthers employ the 3-4, Applewhite is undoubtedly a player that fits it. Last Sunday, the Falcons failed to score on just three drives. Two of those possessions ended when the 258-pound Applewhite got pressure on the quarterback to disrupt third-down passes.
"He's done a good job," McDermott said. "He's obviously been a contributor to what we've done the last couple of weeks and he offers some flexibility.
"He's certainly added to what we're trying to do on defense."
Regardless of what alignment the Panthers employ, what they're trying to do on defense is stop opposing offenses. That's why players like Applewhite and linebacker Jason Phillips – who played in the Baltimore Ravens renowned 3-4 before joining the Panthers – actually downplay the importance of the alignment itself.
"If you understand defense, a 3-4 is basically just an 'under' defense," Applewhite said. "If they motion the tight end across the formation, it turns back into an 'over' (or 4-3) defense anyway."
Added Phillips, who played in a 4-2-5 at Texas Christian: "Three different defenses in the last three places I've been, but it's all concepts that pretty much turn out to be the same thing. As long as you know what you're doing and can play fast, you'll be all right."