By STEVE REED
SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — Ron Rivera’s focus is a little different this summer in his ninth training camp with the Carolina Panthers.
Along with being the team’s head coach, Rivera enters the season as the full-time defensive play caller — a commitment that has changed how he’s approaching his day-to-day operations at Wofford College.
“The biggest thing for me is my attention isn’t split truly in half; it does favor the defensive side,” Rivera said. “There are some things I am doing a little bit more of.”
So when quarterback Cam Newton and the offensive players head in one direction for individual drills, Rivera is often moving with the linebacker Luke Kuechly and the defense to the other side of the field. And when coaches retreat to the meeting rooms after practice, Rivera goes with the defensive staff.
The former Chicago Bears linebacker first took over play-calling duties late last season with the defense struggling to find its way under coordinator Eric Washington. Carolina’s defense played better down the stretch with Rivera making calls, and the Panthers decided to stick with the plan entering this season.
Washington continues to have the title of defensive coordinator and all the duties that come with it — except the play-calling responsibilities.
Kuechly said Rivera is spending more time with the defense this summer, but added that Rivera is careful not to step on his defensive coaches’ toes during team meetings or practice.
“I think he’s always been aware of what’s going on on defense,” Kuechly said. “He’s been in (defensive) meetings a little bit more this year, but he still lets his staff control everything.”
Rivera described his role in meetings as mostly “listening and watching.”
The 57-year-old Rivera said he learned a bunch during his play-calling tenure last season, most notably that the Panthers had become “stagnant” on defense. That’s why he’s incorporating a 3-4 defensive scheme this summer along with the team’s traditional 4-3 look in hopes of becoming less predictable.
Rivera said he feels comfortable focusing on the defense because he has so much faith in offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
Rivera worked under Turner in San Diego as defensive coordinator when Turner was the Chargers’ coach. Although the roles are reversed now, they have a great relationship and Rivera has given Turner complete autonomy over the offense.
“He knows what we’re doing on offense and we spend a lot of time talking about what we’re doing on offense,” Turner said. “Obviously he likes the style of it having been in San Diego.”
Said Rivera: “I am fortunate because I know who Norv is and I have worked for Norv, so I know what this offense is capable of.”
The Panthers have also made defensive line coach Sam Mills III the team’s “game management coach,” an evolving position designed to help Rivera with in-game decisions or management issues that might arise.
With Rivera’s focus on defense, the Panthers don’t want anything falling through the cracks.
“Anytime you can get another set of eyes in a room it’s beneficial, especially a guy with his experience and knowledge,” Kuechly said of Rivera, who has 31 years of NFL experience including nine as a player and 21 as a coach. “He’s been around on different teams and worked with a lot of different systems. So that extra set of eyes helps.”