SPARTANBURG For about 15 minutes Tuesday, the Panthers defensive linemen were matched against the teams offensive linemen in 1-on-1 pass rush drills, and big brother was watching.
Actually, it was Panthers general manager Marty Hurney and coach Ron Rivera, who were studying the action and looking for signs of life from an inconsistent pass rush.
Rivera used a meeting with reporters last week to publicly challenge Charles Johnson, the Panthers $76 million defensive end, to do more. But in truth, Rivera and Hurney are looking for more from all of their pass-rushers.
After his team finished near the bottom in sacks last season, Rivera pointed to a ramped-up pass rush as the key to overall defensive improvement.
And so as a muggy morning practice spilled into the afternoon Tuesday, Rivera watched most of the pass rush drill before joining the skill position players at the other end of the field. Hurney stayed with the linemen for the entirety.
Thomas Keiser noticed.
Its just one of those things where you might look over and go like, Oh. All right, theres Mr. Hurney, said Keiser, a second-year defensive end. I spotted him late.
What Hurney saw was a mixed bag.
Often, the linemen were stoned, kept at arms length from a coach serving as the stand-in quarterback. Other times a player would break through, and get hand-slaps and fist-bumps from his defensive teammates.
Obviously, weve got to get better at that (pressure), Rivera said. Some of our young guys have been flashes, so Marty and I wanted to take a real good, close look at those guys and see how theyre developing.
The established players sat this one out Ryan Kalil, Geoff Hangartner and Jordan Gross for the offense, and Ron Edwards, Greg Hardy and Johnson for the defense.
This was about mining for young talent. Keiser was a bright spot last season an undrafted free agent whose four sacks were good for second on the team. But Keiser has been getting mostly third-team reps at training camp as coaches give players such as rookie end Frank Alexander, a fourth-round pick, and third-year end Eric Norwood more snaps.
Its something the coaches and players have been harping on, defensive end Antwan Applewhite said. Getting to the quarterback, creating turnovers and making big plays.
Numbers dont lie
The Panthers tied for 25th with 31 sacks in 2011. Opponents lost 170 yards attempting to pass against Carolina, the second fewest in Panthers history.
With little or no pressure, quarterbacks werent rushed into bad decisions and seldom were stripped of the ball. Opponents fumbled 20 times against the Panthers, tied for the fewest in a season.
The Panthers 14 interceptions tied for third-fewest.
Numbers alone, I dont think we had enough sacks, Keiser said. And I know the defensive line collectively, we werent satisfied with it. As a defensive line, we want to be one of those units that changes the game. You see that with the New York Giants defensive line.
We know the secondary has the same high standards. They want to be able to change the game. And if everybodys stepping up like that, then were going to have an extremely good defense.
Applewhite, who had two sacks in 12 games after joining the Panthers in Week 5, said injuries and the lack of an offseason program during the lockout affected the chemistry needed for a good pass rush.
Keiser said hes looking forward to Saturdays first exhibition against Houston to lay into a Texans quarterback. For two weeks, the pass rush has been interrupted by a whistle and the red jerseys worn by Cam Newton, Derek Anderson and Jimmy Clausen.
Saturdays going to be a good test to see us really put it to use because a lot of these situations in practice, youve got to pull off at the last second. And theres that gray area of was it a sack, was it not? Keiser said. Were going to have those opportunities in this game.
Johnson had nine sacks last season slightly off his 2011 total of 11 1/2. But there was a drop-off behind him: The next productive rushers were Keiser and Hardy with four sacks apiece.
Hardy reshaped his body this winter, adding 20 pounds to get to 299 but dropping his body fat to 13 percent. Rivera believes Hardy is ready to reshape his career.
Its one of those things where a young guys been developing and developing, Rivera said. And now its time for him to take the next step.
Though some Panthers are expecting defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to use more blitzes this season, Applewhite hopes they dont have to.
I dont feel well need to. I feel well get pressure with our front four because everybodys coming back healthy Greg and Charles and Big Ron inside. I think thats going to make for a much more effective D-line this year, Applewhite said. So we wont have to pressure as much. We can let those guys cover and do what they need to do, and well still get there.