Panthers' new defensive coordinator makes scoring a priority

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Eric Washington wasted little time on Monday, the first day of offseason workouts, letting players know his mission as the first-year defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.

On the screen as he began his first official meeting with players was the word “SCORE’’ in big letters.

The Carolina defense scored only once last season, that against the New York Jets when middle linebacker Luke Kuechly took a fumble 33 yards for a touchdown.

So Washington, Carolina’s third defensive coordinator in three years, wanted to let players know he wanted an aggressive defense that thrived on causing turnovers -- and scoring.

He called it his call to order. He then went around the room calling on individual players, starting with future Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers.

When Peppers said “ready,’’ the rest of the room responded “score.’’

“We wanted to set that bar extremely high,’’ Washington said.

The bar has been set high for the Carolina defense for some time. Since 2012, the Panthers have ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in total defense in all but one season.

They ranked seventh last season under Steve Wilks, who one season removed from replacing Sean McDermott was named the head coach at Arizona. McDermott was named the head coach at Buffalo last offseason after having a top-10 defense in four of the previous five years.

Washington could be next in line for a head coaching job.

Washington was an easy pick for coach Ron Rivera when Wilks left. He already was considered one of the best defensive line coaches in the NFL.

Maintaining the level of excellence set by McDermott won’t be easy. Washington must start the season without Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis, suspended the first four games for violating the league’s policy on banned performance-enhancing drugs.

He’ll be without Peppers and Kuechly most of the offseason as they recover from shoulder surgery. He’ll have two new starters in the secondary after cornerback Daryl Worley was traded to Philadelphia and subsequently released after a recent arrest and safety Kurt Coleman was released.

He’ll be without star defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, lost in free agency.

But Washington is confident that with the pieces he has in place, his unit can maintain what has been established. More than maintain, he believes it can be better, and scoring is the first goal to do that.

“For us it’s a mentality, making sure that is a part of our culture, our expectations,’’ Washington said. “You work on it. The first thing you have to do is execute your defense. You have to be physical tacklers in terms of how we confront the ball carrier. It is hard, but we’ve got an outstanding defense in terms of our personnel.’’

Washington also likes the character of his defense. He started with Davis, suspension and all. He was impressed with the video apology and explanation Davis put on social media as soon as the league notified him of the violation.

He believes the defense will prosper without Davis, just as it did the past three seasons when Kuechly was out with concussions.

“Attrition in the NFL, it’s a normal occurrence,’’ Washington said. “We have to be ready for the next person to step into that role regardless of the reason and be ready to perform.

“We have a thing around here that we don’t coach backups. We coach future starters. We really have to embody that and embrace that and make sure guys are ready to play.’’

Washington, in a sense, was a backup last season just as Wilks was two years ago coaching the secondary. He believes he’s ready to step up, and his first message let the players know his mission.

“I’ve been a part of every set of circumstances in the basic design of our defense [since 2011],’’ Washington said. “A lot of things we have in place, I have been a part of installing those things.

“Everything we do is collaborative. When you approach a new season, rarely are you working in a vacuum or isolating yourself. Pretty much everything we do we work together.’’