Earlier in the year, then-sackless Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson said that people dont look at whether hes getting close to the quarterback. They look at sacks.
If I aint got none, I aint got none, Johnson said in mid-September.
Flash forward to today and Johnson leads the team with 7.5 sacks, anchoring a defensive line that has emerged in recent weeks as one of the most formidable in the NFL.
The Panthers defense ranks 13th in the NFL in average yards allowed, and in the past four weeks, the line has racked up 12 sacks and helped hold the opponents leading rusher to less than 85 yards in each game.
The philosophy has been communicated on a weekly basis of what we want to be, how we want to get it done and so really were hitting our stride at the right time, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. Theres no secret formula. We havent done anything differently. We continue to hone into the fundamentals running to the football, tackling, trying to force turnovers. And the players are working their tails off just like the coaches are.
McDermott added that continuity has also played a role. The Panthers added veteran tackle Dwan Edwards the week before the opener at Tampa Bay, altering the defensive line Carolina had used all preseason.
Gradually, though, the line has improved. Through the first three games, Carolina had five sacks and opponents rushed for 138.3 yards per game.
But a big day for the line against Atlanta seven sacks, including 3.5 by Johnson began a stretch of solid play over a four-game stretch.
Carolina is tied for sixth in the league with 24 sacks. An Observer analysis of the sacks shows:
Eighteen have come when the opposing quarterback is in shotgun, which usually allows him the ability to read the coverage better.
• Only five have come when the opponent uses play-action, which usually freezes linebackers and opens up the passing game, presuming the running game had been successful.
• Nineteen of the Panthers 24 sacks have come off traditional four-man rushes. The remaining five involved single linebacker blitzes, but all 24 sacks have been recorded by defensive linemen.
• The Panthers have caused 181 yards lost on their sacks, an average of 7.54 yards per sack. That is tops in the League among teams with at least 12 sacks.
I come from a blitz background and trying to be aggressive, McDermott said. Theres a lot of ways to play aggressive defense other than blitzing. But the right mix of the two together is effective. Too much blitzing and not enough four-man or not enough blitzing and too much four-man, its got to be the right blend at the right time. They make my job easier when they get to the quarterback like theyve done the last several weeks.
Combining Johnsons total with Greg Hardys 6.5 sacks, the duo has the second-most combined sacks by a pair of defensive ends in the league (14), behind only Houstons J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith (14.5). Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller have combined for 15.
Three of Hardys sacks have come when he has lined up at defensive tackle. His versatility has been needed as the Panthers heavily rotate linemen.
When you look at Greg and Charles combined where they are in the league with their sack numbers, its tough to find a better pair of defensive ends, McDermott said. And you have the fact that Greg moves inside for us, and hes very unselfish with how hes taken that and very professional. And we appreciate that. There arent a lot of ends that move inside and Greg, with his build and his mindset, has done a great job.
The Panthers have also been very effective against the run.
In the past four games, the Panthers line has bottled up Seattles Marshawn Lynch, Dallas Felix Jones, Chicagos Matt Forte and Washingtons Alfred Morris to an average of less than 70 yards per game.
Interestingly, in those four games Panthers coach Ron Rivera has looked to Johnson to fill the captain void left by injured linebacker Jon Beason.
His personality has been great in terms of taking a leadership role, Rivera said. When Jon Beason was injured and we put him on IR, I asked Charles Johnson to take over as captain so he puts a C on his chest now.
Hes been carrying himself like one ever since.