To hear Julius Peppers tell it, the seeds for the Carolina Panthers' success on defense in a 24-9 whipping of Atlanta on Sunday were sown the week before in a bitter loss to Minnesota.
“Last week we got outhit, out-physicaled and outhustled on defense,” Peppers said. “And we told ourselves we weren't going to let that happen this week … We got challenged by the coaches on that, and we also challenged ourselves. Nobody is going to outhustle us, outhit us or be more physical than us. Not anymore.”
No one did Sunday.
While Carolina's offense supplied the win's spice with the familiar trio of Jake Delhomme, Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith, make no mistake – this was a victory built on the shoulder pads of a motivated defense.
Carolina allowed the NFL's leading rusher, Atlanta running back Michael Turner, to gain only 56 yards on 18 carries and never more than 10 on any single one. They flummoxed the Falcons' rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, limiting him to 158 yards in 41 attempts. They limited Atlanta to 2-of-13 on third-down conversions.
In fact, but for two special-teams mistakes that gave the Falcons two field goals – a blocked punt and a “12-men-on-the-field” penalty – the Carolina defense would have given up just three points instead of nine.
Said Carolina's Jon Beason, the middle linebacker who keeps getting better: “We've been good, but we wanted to play great. No touchdowns – that's always big. First we work on the touchdowns. Now we'll work on these field goals, and then try to get some goose eggs. That's what I play for – goose eggs.”
A goose egg is a shutout, and they are exceedingly rare in the NFL. But it's a laudable goal. Carolina entered the Atlanta game ranked 11th in total defense this season and probably will move into the Top 10 after this performance going into next Sunday's game against suddenly potent Kansas City.
“Larry Johnson coming up,” Peppers mused of the Chiefs back who rushed for 198 yards and two touchdowns in Kansas City's 33-19 upset of Denver on Sunday. “It seems like we face a different great back every week.”
At Minnesota, the Panthers' lone loss in this 3-1 start, Carolina was down 17-10 in the third quarter and desperately needed the ball back.
Instead, the Vikings went on a 19-play drive that consumed 11 minutes and 34 seconds – the longest drive in terms of time elapsed the Panthers have ever given up. That drive was longer than some naps. It only ended with a field goal, but it sucked the life out of Carolina.
The defense entered Sunday with a point to prove, and Peppers tried a little too hard to prove it on Atlanta's first series. On third-and-11, with Peppers in his face, Ryan made his worst throw of the day. Carolina's Richard Marshall intercepted it, sprinted into the end zone and the Panthers seemingly had a touchdown only 84 seconds into the game.
But there was a problem. Peppers had hit Ryan too high. That negated the touchdown and instead gave Atlanta a first down. Peppers said referee Ed Hochuli told him that the hit wasn't late or “malicious” but that Hochuli called it due to the helmet-to-helmet contact.
Said Peppers after the game: “I'm not trying to hit (Ryan) with my helmet. I'm not trying to hurt him. But it's football, too. Helmets hit sometimes.”
Peppers could afford to be somewhat blasé about the penalty because the defense responded so admirably afterward. They used a safety for run support most of the game, daring Atlanta to beat it with the pass. The Falcons couldn't do it.
And although the Panthers never grabbed another turnover for the rest of the game, they played well enough to keep the end zone out of bounds for the Falcons. And that's the whole point.