SPARTANBURG — The Carolina Panthers defense is looking to take one more step in 2014.
Luke Kuechly said even though the Panthers were No. 2 in the NFL in defense last season he sees plenty of room for improvement.
Kuechly, the team’s middle linebacker and last year’s AP Defensive Player of the Year, points to early season losses to Seattle and Buffalo in which Carolina gave up late touchdowns.
“We need to do a better job of finishing games,” Kuechly said.
Only the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks allowed fewer yards and fewer points last season than the Panthers.
With everyone returning everyone from a disruptive front seven and with some added NFL experience in the secondary, some Panthers feel like they can unseat the Seahawks as the league’s elite defensive team.
“I feel like we can be the league’s number one defense,” said second-year defensive tackle Kawann Short.
Carolina allowed 301.3 yards and 15.1 points per game last season; the Seahawks allowed 276.3 yards and 14.4 points.
The Panthers allowed the fewest touchdowns (21), had the most sacks (50) and were third in red zone defense last season under defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.
The Panthers lost only two defensive starters from 2013 – cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell – but replaced them with veterans Antoine Cason and Roman Harper. They also added veteran safety Thomas DeCoud.
With so many players familiar with the defense and a plethora of NFL experience, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the team has already been able to install 75 percent of its defense just one week into training camp.
“That’s a huge plus for us,” Rivera said. “As a coordinator you get to the point where the more you get in, the quicker you can refine things and start working on your opponents. ... It can shore things up where you can be a top three defense.”
Rivera knows what it’s like to have a No. 1 defense.
He was the defensive coordinator in San Diego in 2010 when the Chargers finished first in the league.
Cason was a member of that squad and said this team “is a little different” than the Chargers team in terms of personnel, but has big-time potential.
“Everyone is together, everyone picks each other up,” Cason said. “Everyone hustles and does exactly what they need to do within the defense to make it work.”
The Panthers return veteran defensive end Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who combined for 26 sacks last year, defensive tackles Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole, and linebackers Thomas Davis, Chase Blackburn and Kuechly from last year’s team, giving Rivera a host of veteran leaders on the field.
“Just the fact that most of the defense is a solid group in terms of veterans, that helps,” Rivera said.
And the youth isn’t bad either.
The Panthers defense flourished last season despite playing six rookies – sometimes all at the same time.
Rivera said with he expects defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Short, defensive end Wes Horton, linebacker A.J. Klein and cornerback Melvin White and safety Robert Lester to take another big step in 2014 with one year behind them.
Together that group of rookies played in 85 combined games, had 169 tackles, 8.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries as rookies.
It all lends itself to a potentially promising season under, the team’s fourth-year defensive coordinator who runs a 4-3 base defensive scheme with some occasional 3-4 looks.
But Kuechly cautions the Panthers can’t simply assume they’ll be better.
Carolina avenged its early losses to Buffalo and Seattle last year by winning 11 of its final 12 games to finish 12-4 and win the NFC South championship. But the Panthers couldn’t get past San Francisco, falling 23-10 at home in the divisional playoffs.
Kuechly said if the Panthers are to build on 2013 and take the next step toward separating themselves from other teams they’ll need to be more consistent.
“Hey, there were times we played really well last year and times we didn’t play well,” said Kuechly, who had 176 tackles and four interceptions last season. “We’ve got to get on the same page starting from day one.”