Inside access: Defense and linebackers meetings

CHARLOTTE – It's often said that games in the NFL are won in meeting rooms and on practice fields on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Fans and media have the opportunity to watch practice in training camp, but what about the meetings? What about the game-planning during the week? What is it like? How is it done?

For anyone who isn't a coach or player, a meeting feels a lot like a foreign language class. And you don't know the language.

Code words are used to describe calls and complex schemes. There are packages of plays for particular formations against particular opponents. There are audibles to remember and tendencies to key on. It can be overwhelming.

These meetings illuminate the extent of the mental preparation that is required for a football game.


It's Wednesday morning prior to the Panthers' 30-20 win over the New York Jets.

The players take their seats in the defense team meeting room, and they are greeted with this message on the projector screen: "Playoff Caliber."

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott takes the floor and begins the meeting promptly at 9 a.m.

The players are in their seats with notebooks or iPads in hand. Some chew sunflower seeds. The assistant coaches are scattered around the room. Head coach Ron Rivera takes his usual seat in the middle of the last row.

The lights are dimmed and McDermott begins.

"Double-digit wins," he says. "Doesn't happen every year in the NFL."

"Confidence levels have to be high."

That's especially true after a tough loss in New Orleans the week before, when the Panthers surrendered a season-high 31 points.

McDermott speaks with confidence. His sentences are concise. His voice is loud. Laser pointer in hand. He constantly moves from one side of the room to the other, up a few rows and back down.

The purpose of this meeting is to present the Jets' offense to the players. What they do well. What they struggle against.

A slide appears as McDermott begins outlining the opposition's offense. It's titled: "What it takes to win."

Stop the run is first. Clips of Jets running backs Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell are shown. McDermott adds that they must account for the quarterback's rushing ability.

"He can take a lane if you give him a lane."

New York enters the game ranked 11th in the league in rushing, averaging 126.1 yards per game.

(The Jets pop a couple of long runs and finish with 157 yards, dropping the Panthers to second in the NFL in rushing defense.)

Hit the quarterback is second on the list. Clips of rookie quarterback Geno Smith are shown.

Smith will make the 14th start of his career against the Panthers. Two weeks before this Week 15 matchup, he was pulled from the game. The next week, he played well in a win.

Like most young quarterbacks, he's prone to inconsistency. The Panthers aim to take advantage. They want to force mistakes.

(Smith completes 15-of-28 passes for 167 yards with one touchdown and one interception against Carolina. He's also sacked four times, and the Panthers register eight quarterback hits.)

"We are going to win this game up front."

"We are going to get after him."

"Penetrate. Let's disrupt."

Some pressure packages the Panthers plan to use are shown. At this point, McDermott cracks his first smile of the meeting when he looks at the disappointed expression on linebacker Thomas Davis' face.

"If it's not designed for you, I see you shaking your head," McDermott says.

Davis smiles and nods.

Takeaways and score are the final items on the list. Clips of defenses forcing turnovers against the Jets are shown.

"Multiple teams have scored on defense," McDermott says. "He is going to stare it down."

The Jets enter the game having given up four interception returns for touchdowns and one fumble return for a touchdown during the 2013 season. Smith's 20 interceptions are the most in the league. New York's minus-18 turnover differential through 13 games is the worst in the league.

(The numbers get worse when Smith stares down wide receiver Santonio Holmes on third-and-long in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn picks off the pass and returns it for a 41-yard touchdown.)

McDermott then points out that Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was the Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator last season. The Panthers defeated the Eagles 30-22 in Week 12 a season ago.

McDermott pulls out clips from that game. The coaches have seen similar formations and tendencies from Mornhinweg.

It's now 9:24 a.m., and McDermott calls up defensive line coach Eric Washington, who will further dissect the Jets' multi-faceted run game.

Washington's voice booms. He has a clear message for the room.

"We take the security blanket away from this rookie quarterback."

Washington shows clips of the Jets' rushing attack. At this point, McDermott is quietly discussing something with linebacker Chase Blackburn.

Washington barks out commentary as the clips run.

"They'll use every trick in the book to try to get us off our game."

"They like to cut block."

"We have to take out pullers."

Then a run play from the Panthers-Eagles game last year flashes on the screen. It's a shotgun pitch to defensive end Charles Johnson's side that goes for a minimal gain.

Then, Rivera's voice is heard for the first time.

He asks Washington to go back to that play. Rivera then quietly chats with Johnson about his responsibilities on the play. The room is silent. Washington replays the run five or six times. Then they move on.

After Washington finishes his presentation on the run game, McDermott takes the floor to close out the 40-minute meeting.

He repeats the importance of playing disciplined, assignment football against an offense that uses a lot of window dressing. Next, he reiterates the importance of forcing third-and-long so the Panthers can pin their ears back and bring pressure.

"You want to have some fun?" he says, "Win on first and second down."

The players head out to their respective position meetings, which start in five minutes.


Whereas the defense team meeting resembles a large lecture, the linebackers position meeting has the feel of a recitation or discussion session. It's a lot looser, and the players are much more interactive. It's a comfortable environment.

First-year linebackers coach Al Holcomb's job is to break down McDermott's meeting into smaller, linebacker-specific parts in what he describes as a heavy install day.

"The players that you coach are students, and it's about finding the best way to teach them," Holcomb said. "Every coach has a different method.

"The players understand the overall picture that we are trying to paint. It's about the details and the minor things."

Holcomb can be described as one of the guys. He's a young coach in his late 30s, and he's generally pretty laid back.

"We have our fun in there," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "He knows when to turn it up and when to turn it down."

Holcomb likes to have fun with his players. And he doesn't mind poking fun at them either.

Holcomb's screensaver, which flashes on the projector screen before the position meeting begins, features four pictures of Kuechly "dancing" at a recent community event.

Thomas Davis, dressed head to toe in Georgia Bulldog red, glances at the pictures of Kuechly before taking his seat.

"That's messed up right there," Davis says.

After some more playful ribbing, the meeting begins at 9:45 a.m. Jordan Senn takes his preferred spot on the floor to get some stretching in; Jason Williams grabs his "floor-chair" in the back right corner.

Holcomb stands in the front of the room and addresses the group.

The wall between the linebackers and defensive line meeting room is thin. It stands no chance of keeping Coach Washington's booming voice out. It's essentially like being in two meetings at once.

Holcomb can reach that decibel level when he has to. For now, he's more relaxed as the meeting gets under way.

"We are going to be aggressive this week," he says.

The linebackers fully expect to see a heavy dose of running plays against the Jets, and Holcomb compliments New York's hard running style.

He highlights Jets fullback Tommy Bohanon.

"The fullback is going to take you to the rock."

Chase Blackburn questions how his role changes versus a certain look from the Jets. It's the first of many questions asked by the players.

As Kuechly puts it: "It's a conversation most of the time. It's not always him talking at us. He's talking with us."

Holcomb then hits the whiteboard to draw plays. It becomes a Q&A session with the players as they go over their assignments against the wildcat and zone read.

"There is not enough time in the day to go over everything an offense does," Blackburn says after the meeting. But this seems pretty darn close.

Holcomb then draws some of the route trees the Panthers can expect. He quizzes rookie A.J. Klein, who quickly comes up with the answer Holcomb is looking for.

Holcomb goes back to the run game.

"I expect us to fit it like champs," he says.

And he pleads for the linebackers to disrupt things behind the line of scrimmage as the hour-long meeting concludes.

"Somebody get a TFL (tackle for loss) this week," he says.

Davis makes a tackle for loss, and Kuechly records a sack. Blackburn doesn't record a TFL but makes the biggest hit of the afternoon when he reads a power play perfectly and stones Ivory for no gain on second-and-short in the fourth quarter.

"There is nothing better than that. When it executes the way you want, it's a great feeling," Blackburn said. "You've gone over it, you've repped it and when you get on the sideline you're like, 'Oh yeah, we had that on Wednesday. I got you coach.'"

Adds Holcomb: "For me, that's the most satisfying thing."

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