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What's happened to Thieves Ave.?


CHARLOTTE - Thieves Ave. was constructed in 2015, built on the back of a league-leading 24 interceptions. 

The boisterous block was a bit quieter last season after Josh Norman moved out, but it still produced 17 picks, tied for fourth most. 

This year, Thieves Ave. has seemingly turned into a ghost town. 

The Panthers have just five interceptions, tied with the Bears for third fewest. Those picks have come from linebacker Luke Kuechly (three) and safety Mike Adams (two), making Carolina one of two teams still waiting to get one from its cornerbacks. The other club on that list is Oakland, whose lone interception was by linebacker Navorro Bowman in Week 12.

"I can't believe it," Captain Munnerlyn said about the Panthers' lack of plays on the ball. "But you've got to see the style of defense we play." 

Which was a common refrain inside the locker room – and is a legit reason. 

To get the ball of out the quarterback's hands quicker, defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has the Panthers playing much more man coverage than have in recent history. That means defensive backs are turned away from the line of scrimmage. Under Sean McDermott's mostly zone coverage, the secondary was able to keep an eye on the quarterback.

"You can try to jump a zone," safety Kurt Coleman explained. "But when you're in man, if your guy beats you, there's a lot of space, so the quarterback doesn't have to thread the needle. Whereas if it's a zone coverage, he usually has to put it in a particular spot, and if he misses that spot, someone's sitting in the next zone." 

If there were a mayor of Thieves Ave., it would have been Coleman, who still has a couple of the handmade signs in his locker. He intercepted an NFC-best 11 passes the past two seasons. This year, Coleman has none in nine games. 

"I don't want to press my game because that's never been good when I really try to press to get a pick or press to make a big play," he said. "I have to let the game come to me. Trust me, it's frustrating when I want to help do that, but I have to play within the system and I have to do my job."

Frustration has also bubbled up inside James Bradberry, who had hoped to improve his ball-hawking skills a year after he picked off just two passes as a rookie. 

"They always talk about six inches, and that's pretty much what it's been all year," Bradberry said. "Six inches away from the ball every time, that's probably the toughest thing about it."

With guys like Bradberry playing with their backs to the quarterback, that makes the few opportunities they do get that much more important. Alas … 

"We've some in our hands that we should've caught," head coach Ron Rivera said. "For example, last week Daryl Worley makes a great play (last week in New Orleans). Great position, makes a great break on the ball and had an opportunity to make a play."

"It's something I should have caught," Worley admitted. "I catch it all the time. It's a play that should've been made."

For what it's worth, Carolina has dropped just three interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information. So even if they would've cashed all those in, the Panthers would only be tied with the Bengals and Giants for 22nd most. But according to Coleman, there's a silver lining found in other stats. 

Wilks' defense is No. 6 against the pass, tied for fifth in sacks and 10th in limiting completions of 20-plus yards. 

"I'd rather have us play the way we are with the limited amount of turnovers and constantly keep our team in the game and not giving up deep balls in comparison to being such an aggressive defense where we're taking our shots but we're also giving up the big plays," Coleman said. 

"Do we want to have more turnovers? Absolutely. But I don't think anyone's really too concerned and saying, 'Oh gosh, what are we doing back here?' I think we're doing a good job. We just have to find a way."

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