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Rivera discusses defense


INDIANAPOLIS - A year ago, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera arrived at the NFL Scouting Combine fully invested in a search for a franchise quarterback that could help his new team compete in the NFC South.

Thursday, he arrived in search of ways to slow down the other franchise quarterbacks that populate the division.

"That's one of our priorities – to improve on the defensive side," Rivera said, adding that the defensive prospects participating in the combine represent just one of the ways the Panthers can improve.

"There were so many circumstances last year that were beyond our control in terms of the injuries we suffered. Part of it is that we've got to access our depth and where we're headed with that, and I think there are some needs that we most certainly need to field, whether it be through free agency or the draft. We also have to continue to develop the players we have."

The Panthers got their franchise quarterback in last year's draft by selecting eventual rookie of the year Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick. This April, they'll try to help Newton beginning with their first draft choice – eighth or ninth overall depending on the outcome of a coin toss Friday morning in Indianapolis.

The Panthers aren't married to a position or even a side of the ball with their first pick, but Rivera readily admitted Thursday that the Panthers need to get better on defense. The Panthers ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring offense in 2011 but fifth-to-last in scoring defense while finishing third in the division with a 6-10 record.

"We need help pretty much all over," Rivera said. "It's not just at defensive back. You have to have a pass rush. You've got to be able to put pressure on the quarterback. It's a combination of both of those.

"We've got a quality corps of players, and we're counting on some players to come back healthy."

Rivera praised the job first-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott did in light of difficult circumstances that saw the Panthers lose veteran defensive tackle Ron Edwards to a season-ending triceps injury in training camp and top linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis for the season in Weeks 1 and 2.

Injuries continued to devastate the unit over the course of the season – with nine defensive players among a team-record 18 players on injured reserve – but the players that remained showed progress as the season continued.

The Panthers yielded an average of 28.6 points over the first 10 games last season but just 19.6 over the next five games before a white-hot New Orleans Saints offense got the best of them in the season finale.

McDermott's defense should have more help next season.

For one, it might benefit from an even better offense. The combine features plenty of talented prospects on the offensive side, plus Rivera expects Newton to continue to develop – especially with the Panthers' offensive coaching staff returning.

"The last four years, Cam has had a different voice as his offensive coordinator. For the first time, he's going to have the same voice back-to-back years," Rivera said. "Continuity is important. I'm excited for the potential for growth."

The potential – and the need - for growth is even greater on defense. Several of those gathered at the combine may eventually help the cause, including Rivera.

"Now that I've gone through my first season as a head coach and understand what's expected of me, I think I can help a little bit more on the defensive side," Rivera said. "It was frustrating as a defensive coach how we struggled at times, but I like to point to how we played the last six games. Defensively, we did the things that we're capable of once we got a feel for who were are and what we're trying to become."

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