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Fowler: Carolina Panthers see sacks as success

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
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DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
Carolina’s Dwan Edwards (92) and Frank Alexander (90) converge on Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill for a sack last November.

In 2013, the Carolina Panthers led the NFL and set a franchise record with 60 sacks in a season.

In 2014, is it possible the Panthers could add 13 more sacks and set the all-time NFL record in the same category?

One member of the defense said so publicly Tuesday, becoming the first player to verbalize the goal.

“We set the bar pretty high last year, leading the league with 60 sacks,” tackle Colin Cole said to reporters. “The goal is to surpass that and see if we can’t get up with the big dogs of the past years. We want to set records. We did as a franchise. We want to do it across the league.”

I asked Cole then if he knew what the league record was. He didn’t know which team had set it, but had a good idea where the Panthers’ 2014 target would be.

“What I do know is that the overall league record for sacks in a year was somewhere up in the mid-70s,” said Cole, who started 13 games for Carolina last season and had one sack. “For us as a defensive line, that’s where our goal is. And maybe that’s just me talking on my behalf, but if you don’t shoot for the stars, you’ll never reach the moon.”

The actual NFL single-season sack record: 72 in 1984, by the Chicago Bears. That Chicago team didn’t win the Super Bowl that year, but did so the next season, going 18-1 with basically the same nucleus.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera was a reserve rookie linebacker on the ’84 Bears team but did not have a single sack that season. He saw all 72 of them, though.

“It was really the perfect storm,” Rivera said.

He pointed to the Bears’ innovative “46” defensive scheme, a huge reliance on blitzing, a defense that included three future NFL Hall of Famers and some different NFL rules as factors in the 72-sack season.

The fact that offensive linemen are allowed more leniency in where to place their hands now – in other words, they can practically hold on every play now and could not in 1984 – also made a difference.

As for Rivera’s roles on those mid-1980s Bears teams on passing downs when he blitzed, he said: “I was what they called the ‘sacrificial.’ I was the guy who would go and run right into the double-team. I was the magnet who would just run into this pileup and just get blown up.”

Teammates then would circle around the Rivera-made pileup and make the sack.

It sounds simple in one respect for the Panthers to get to 73 in 2014. One additional sack per game would be more than enough.

But in reality, this is an almost impossible goal. NFL quarterbacks throw the ball on three-step drops so often these days that even an unblocked pass rusher sometimes can’t get to him.

Carolina would need double-digit sack seasons once again from defensive ends Greg Hardy (15 in 2013) and Charles Johnson (11), but likely with both increasing their totals by at least three apiece.

They would almost assuredly need a third sacker to emerge as well and get around eight to 10 sacks. Their third-highest sack man in 2013 was linebacker Thomas Davis, who blitzed his way to four.

And then the Panthers would need some breakout sack performances from young players such as rookie Kony Ealy or defensive tackle K.K. Short.

Don’t forget the game situations – critical for sack numbers. The Panthers would need enough offense from Cam Newton and company that Carolina was playing with double-digit leads in a lot of fourth quarters. That’s when sack numbers pile up, as teams are forced to throw one pass after another.

Notice I said 73 is nearly impossible, but not completely. This Panthers defense was No. 2 in the NFL last season and paced the NFL in sacks. Its starting front seven returns intact. It would be foolish to say this is completely out of the question.

“It’s nice that our guys have that kind of confidence,” Rivera said.

But 73 sacks?! That works out to more than 4.5 per game. There’s a reason that record has stood for 30 years – 72 is an incredibly high number.

Ultimately, I don’t think the Panthers will get the record or really get that close to it.

But it will be a lot of fun to watch them try.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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