Drew Brees threw 49 passes against Carolina and was sacked once.
The most misleading statistic from the Panthers 35-27 victory against New Orleans Sunday is that one. The Panthers hit, hurried and hassled Brees. They forced him to throw the ball away and knocked him down as he flipped the ball underhanded to the turf to avoid a sack.
The line was maligned last season, and in training camp this season. Ive written at least 10 times since August that the defensive line is the teams weakest component.
It wasnt Sunday as Brees quarterback rating of 72.2 will attest. (Carolinas Cam Newtons rating was 129.2.)
Defensive end Charles Johnson stripped the ball from Brees on fourth down in the fourth quarter and forced a fumble. He also helped make what would be the most important play of the game.
The Saints cakewalked to a touchdown the first time they had the ball. Leading 7-0, they started their second drive. They had the ball second and eight on the Carolina nine-yard-line.
Brees rolled right and Johnson, 6-2 and 285 pounds, rolled with him. It was just the two of them the astute quarterback and the big lineman. Johnson, too, was astute. He had seen the play on tape, recognized it immediately and anticipated that Brees would run right.
Brees pump faked no quarterback does it better yet Johnson refused to react. He just kept coming.
This is my sixth year, Johnson said, explaining why he wasnt fooled.
How about when you were younger?
Im still scarred from it, Johnson said.
Brees saw tight end David Thomas but Johnson impeded the view. Brees threw, safety Charles Godfrey jumped in front of Thomas and returned the ball nine yards for a Carolina touchdown.
Rush the quarterback, get him in panic mode and he has to get ball out of his hands quick, says Godfrey.
Are you saying that your defensive line forced Brees to panic?
Well, I dont know, said Godfrey. Im just saying people in general. You got a big lineman coming after you, youre going to panic.
The names of the linemen changed. It was Ron and Dwan Edwards, pushing the offensive line backward and Johnson and Greg Hardy, or Antwan Applewhite and rookie Frank Alexander, or Thomas Keiser rushing outside.
But, the message didnt change. The NFL is a quarterbacks league. Everybody says so and theyre right. How do you negate the quarterback? You get him. You force him to throw before hes ready, to places he doesnt want.
That was a main focus point of emphasis, said Dwan Edwards, who shared the lone official sack with Keiser. Especially getting after him, getting him off his spot, making him uncomfortable.
Offensive tackle Jordan Gross watched his defensive counterparts from the sideline.
They did awesome to get that much pressure on Drew Brees, Gross said. The defensive line was outstanding.
You go against them in practice. Who stands out?
Charles Johnson is a good pass rusher, consistent and strong as can be, said Gross. Ron Edwards is good on the run and Dwan Edwards was a big pickup for us. Antwan Applewhite can rush too, and then you get guys in there like Keiser doing what he does when he gets a chance. And Greg Hardy really did a good job because hes been sick as a dog all week.
The Panthers didnt know if Hardy, who had the stomach flu, would be able to play. But he told doctors he would. He insisted.
There were surprises. Applewhite dropped into pass coverage. Alexander, who deflected two passes in Carolinas opener, lined up inside.
And Alexander can move.
Well, not like 4.3 (40-yard) speed, says Alexander, 270 pounds. Ive run a 4.6.
The defensive backs were the beneficiaries of the lines good work, and the line benefited from the work of the backs.
We both are like husband and wife, said rookie cornerback Josh Norman. We complement each other very well. They get pressure, we sit back and wait, they make us look good. We get coverage, they go and get the quarterback. So it goes hand in hand.
Whos the husband?
I dont know about that one, Norman said. You got to let that one slide.
I will. You earned it. The defense certainly did.