Ron Rivera deploys 4-man front, unique coverage package to combat Rams

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CHARLOTTE – So yeah, about that new 3-4 defense you heard about all summer.

Head coach Ron Rivera did in fact have something up his sleeve for the season-opener against the Los Angeles Rams, just not what we were expecting.

We will see the 3-4 at some point soon, but the Panthers utilized four down linemen for the vast majority of the game. That was due in large part to the style of offense they were facing.

“We never really got into our 3-4 package because we knew it was going to be mostly nickel and buffalo (big nickel),” Rivera said. “That was the feel.”

And Rivera also unveiled a new third-down package, one that featured six defensive backs. It was essentially a 3-2-6 look aimed at matching up with the Rams receiving threats.

“The group really does give us good versatility. That package we can most certainly use and grow on going forward,” Rivera said. “It was some of the things that we tried to create some matchups.”

The two additional defensive backs were Ross Cockrell, who provides depth at corner and safety, and traditional nickel Javien Elliott.

“It’s something we’ve been working on for the last couple weeks,” Cockrell said of the package. “I want to be a playmaker for this team and the coaches are giving me an opportunity to do that.”

Defensively speaking, the first half was pretty solid and went according to plan for Carolina.

The Rams had just 112 total yards and their touchdown was gift-wrapped after the Panthers fumbled the ball away on a backward pass deep in their own territory. Other than that, the Rams had two field goals for a 13-3 halftime lead.

But the start of the second half was far from ideal.

Los Angeles ripped off chunk plays of 24, 15 and 25 yards in quick succession before tacking on another field goal to make it 16-10.

“That’s on me. 100 percent,” said Rivera, who continues to call defensive plays after taking over those duties late last season. “(Rams head coach Sean McVay) did a nice job. I got a little impatient on him and he hit me with it.”

The Rams then produced a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive with their next possession to build a 23-10 advantage. Quarterback Jared Goff converted a couple third downs with throws to wideout Cooper Kupp, frustrating the Carolina defense, particularly the pass rushers.

“With the offense they run, coach wanted an extra DB on the field, which is fine because it was working for us early on,” defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “When we get in certain situations with other teams and we get in situations where we can rush four, we’ll get a lot more pressure.”

At times, the 3-2-6 look that was deployed on third downs involved just three rushers. The Panthers opted for more men in coverage as opposed to more heat on Goff.

“With everything you have to give up something. That’s just football,” Elliott said. “Regardless of what package it is, you are going to have strengths and weaknesses.”

Getting pressure with three isn’t impossible, but it’s a challenge.

“It was pretty tough,” rookie edge rusher Brian Burns said. “It’s always tough when you go with a three-man rush.”

Goff was only sacked once, courtesy of Bradberry of all people on the first defensive series of the game. Goff was hit six times, but was pretty comfortable through large stages of the second half.

Giving up 30 points -- and 166 rushing yards -- in a loss at home isn’t what the Panthers defense had in mind for a debut.

And it’ll be interesting to see which kind of tactics Rivera chooses to deploy in Week 2 after evaluating the tape.

“We have to most certainly make sure we are giving these guys the chance to succeed,” Rivera said.

View in-game photos as the Panthers take on the Rams in the season opener.

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