Panthers' Rivera at NFL combine: Duty calls for defense

INDIANAPOLIS _ Ron Rivera's first season with the Panthers featured an exciting, big-play offense, a record-setting rookie quarterback and a turnaround that saw the Panthers jump from the league's worst offense to a top-10 unit.

The only thing wrong with the picture: Rivera is a coach with a defensive background.

After injuries and inconsistent play doomed the Panthers to one of the worst defensive seasons in team history, Rivera vowed to be more hands-on with the defense during his second year in Charlotte.

"Now that I've gone through the first season and understand what's expected of me, I think I can help a little bit more on the defensive side," Rivera said Thursday at the NFL scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"One thing you learn and adjust to is really what's needed or what's called upon for a head coach to do in terms of his duties. That was a little bit different for me, obviously, and I can be involved more with that side of the ball."

Rivera, a former Chicago Bears linebacker whose entire assistant coaching career was on defense, can only do so much if the Panthers don't get some reinforcements.

The Panthers hope starting linebackers Jon Beason (Achilles surgery) and Thomas Davis (a third ACL surgery on his right knee) come back healthy (Davis also will require a restructured contract). They're also anxious to get a look at defensive tackle Ron Edwards, who tore his triceps at the first training camp practice after signing as a free agent.

The Panthers are expected to use their first-round draft pick on a defensive player. Most analysts predict they will take a defensive tackle, but cornerback is another priority for a team that ranked 28th in total defense and yielded the most points, yards and passing yards in the franchise's 17-year history.

Asked which defensive positions were the biggest needs, Rivera said: "We need help pretty much all over."

Rivera thought coordinator Sean McDermott did a nice job piecing together his defense despite the early losses of Edwards, Beason and Davis, and the injuries to defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain that ended the rookies' seasons in Week 14.

An improved run defense helped the Panthers win four of their final six games. But a meltdown in a 45-17 loss to New Orleans in Week 17 _ in which the Panthers allowed a franchise-record 617 yards _ epitomized the defensive shortcomings when facing a premiere offense.

"Without a doubt, it was frustrating as a defensive coach to see us struggle at times," Rivera said. "The thing I like to point out is how we played the last six games. I thought defensively we did things we were capable of. I think once guys got a feel for who we are and what we're trying to become as a (defense), I thought they played very well. A lot of these young guys played that we didn't expect to play last season."

Among the surprises was linebacker Jordan Senn and a number of young defensive linemen. End Thomas Keiser, who began the year on the practice squad, finished with four sacks in eight games, and tackles Andre Neblett and Frank Kearse showed flashes after Fua and McClain went down.

While many draft experts have the Panthers taking Louisiana State defensive tackle Michael Brockers in the first round _ the Panthers will pick eighth or ninth pending upon the result of this morning's coin flip with Miami _ they also could look at a cornerback such as Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick or North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins, who was dismissed from Florida's team.

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