For the first several weeks of the season, Panthers coach Ron Rivera came to the defense of his team’s pass rush, saying the pressure was there even if the sacks were not.
Now the Panthers’ defensive line has the stats to back him up.
Beginning with the opening series last weekend at Atlanta, the Panthers collapsed the pocket and generally made life miserable for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
The Panthers tied a team record with seven sacks. Defensive end Charles Johnson collected half of them, setting a team single-game mark with 3.5 sacks.
Ryan had the last laugh, guiding the Falcons to a come-from-behind, 30-28 victory. But the Panthers proved they could get to the quarterback after three weeks of mostly just getting close.
Now Rivera wants to see more.
“I do think the defensive line played about as well as they have around here the last two seasons. I thought the energy they brought to the defense was tremendous,” Rivera said. “I told the guys, ‘You put it out there now. You showed what you’re capable of. There’s no reason not to do it every week.’ So we’ll see how they respond.”
After allowing their first three opponents to score on 80-yard touchdown drives on their opening series, the Panthers’ defense set the tempo against Atlanta. The Falcons went three-and-out after blitzing linebacker Jon Beason forced an incompletion on first down, Johnson knocked down Ryan’s second-down pass before Johnson and rookie end Frank Alexander combined to sack Ryan on third down.
“You couldn’t ask for a better start,” Rivera said. “And it all started up front.”
The pressure spread like a virus. The Panthers’ defensive linemen sensed they had the Falcons’ line on its heels, and had Ryan getting hot feet in the pocket.
“We were just hunting out there. It was as a front. I can’t say it was all on me because there were numerous plays where guys were pushing that pocket where he couldn’t even step up,” Johnson said. “Once you get that feel as a group and how you push that pocket, and everybody’s got that recipe, it’s bound to have a good game.”
The Panthers finished with 31 sacks in 2011, Rivera’s first season, which tied for 25th in the league. After Sunday’s effort, the Panthers are tied for seventh with 12 sacks and are on pace to finish with 48.
Carolina has received good production from a couple of newcomers.
Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, signed before Week 1 after Buffalo released him, is tied with Johnson for the team lead with 3.5 sacks. Alexander, a fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, has 2.5 sacks and three batted passes.
But the line leader is Johnson, whose numbers slipped last year after he signed a six-year, $76 million extension. Johnson had been beating blockers and stripped New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees of the ball in a win against the Saints.
But until last week against Atlanta, the player nicknamed “Big Money” was not cashing in with sacks.
“We fed off of Big Money, and we go to work. He’s kind of like our leader,” third-year end Greg Hardy said. “When it rains, it pours. You’ve just got to get that ball rolling. We’re always back there. People only recognize it when you actually get the sacks.”
Most impressive is the Panthers were able to pressure Ryan without doing a lot of blitzing. Instead, they looked to exploit mismatches against the Falcons’ linemen by aligning two of their ends inside at tackle – a look Rivera used last season, and one he used when he ran San Diego’s 3-4 defense.
The idea is get as many pass-rushing ends as possible on the field at the same time.
“Sometimes the best matchup might be to put a speed guy on the guard, widen everyone else out and try to create a 1-on-1 there. So we’re looking at different ways to create those types of mismatches,” Rivera said. “With the guys we have, we feel pretty good because we have some guys with some length. When you get them up against a short, stout guard, you’ve got an opportunity to make a play.”
Said Hardy: “When we four-man rush, we’re rushing a lot of ends. So we’ve got a lot of speed out there. … Hopefully it’s going to be hard to get away from us.”
Hardy believes that speed will come into play Sunday against Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, a 5-11 rookie who has 80 rushing yards on 22 carries.
“I feel like I’m going to take advantage of him. He moves his feet around a lot. He’s got those sweet feet, likes to get out of the pocket,” Hardy said. “Hopefully, we can get him running into some sacks.”