The Panthers rediscovered their pass rush Sunday to the tune of eight sacks and more than 20 pressures in a 30-20 victory against Arizona.
It helped that the Panthers were facing an immobile quarterback in Carson Palmer and a suspect offensive line that lost left tackle Jared Veldheer to a season-ending arm injury in the second half.
But an Observer film analysis revealed how the Panthers helped themselves, too: The invasion of the Cardinals’ offensive backfield was the result of a creative pressure scheme by defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, the infusion of some fresh legs in the blitz packages and a new alignment for defensive end Kony Ealy.
1. McDermott’s scheme
The Panthers entered Sunday’s game with just 12 sacks, including a total of 2.5 by their four starting defensive linemen.
But the bye week gave McDermott an extra week to prepare and a couple of additional practices to implement a defensive game plan that was aggressive from the start.
After Arizona coach Bruce Arians elected to take the ball after winning the coin toss, McDermott sent blitzes at Palmer on each of the Cardinals’ first two plays. And while linebackers Thomas Davis (on the first play) and Luke Kuechly failed to come up with sacks, the pressures let Palmer know the Panthers weren’t going to let him get comfortable in the pocket.
Two plays later, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei got penetration and hit Palmer, who tried to shovel the ball to running back David Johnson. Officials ruled it a fumble, which Davis scooped up and returned 46 yards for a touchdown.
(Arians told reporters Monday that officials told him at halftime a glitch in the replay system prevented them from reviewing the play. Otherwise, it would have been overturned.)
On third-and-10 on Arizona’s next possession, McDermott again sent Kuechly, who tore into the backfield to sack Palmer. The Panthers blitzed Palmer on 8 of his 24 first-half drop-backs, before McDermott scaled it back in the second half with a big lead.
All told, the Panthers blitzed on 15 of Palmer’s 54 drop-backs, the Observer film study found.
“It just felt like we had success pressuring a little bit. We stayed with it and the guys were getting there,” McDermott said. “It’s all calculated and you try to mix it in at the right time. Every game’s a little bit different.”
McDermott says he naturally has “an aggressive personality” because of his background as an accomplished high school wrestler. And while he’s not as aggressive as his mentor, deceased Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, McDermott tries to be smart in picking his spots to send extra pass rushers.
“I thought he mixed it very well,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He did come out and he was aggressive early on with these guys. I thought it got the engines going.”
A new addition to the secondary helped kick-start those engines.
2. The Leonard Johnson effect
For the first two months of the season, Leonard Johnson spent every practice going through exercises on the side of the field wearing game pants. The former Tampa Bay nickel back, signed by Carolina in July after offseason Achilles surgery, wore the pants as motivation during his rehab.
When Johnson started practicing during the bye week, he looked like someone who could provide coverage help to a cornerback group hit hard by injuries and personnel losses.
But Johnson’s biggest boost against the Cardinals came as a blitzer.
Johnson, who is 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, blitzed seven times -- more than any other defender -- and had his first sack as a Panther. Johnson would have had another, but was penalized for inadvertently yanking Palmer’s helmet off in the process.
Johnson, 26, who started three games for New England last season after three seasons in Tampa, said he had no clue he’d be so active in the pressure package vs. Arizona.
“I never blitzed as much as I did (Sunday),” Johnson said. “So it was just a bit surprising that I was able to get in and be disruptive.”
Johnson can expect to do more of it.
“He brought some energy out there,” Rivera said. “He’s a very aggressive blitzer.”
3. Fewer reps, bigger impact for Ealy
The Panthers used part of the bye week to self-scout and find ways to improve. One of the things they discovered: Ealy was more effective as a pass rusher from the left, which is defensive end Charles Johnson’s preferred side, too.
Ealy started the game on the bench, with Wes Horton getting the start at right end.
On an 80-degree day, McDermott wanted to distribute the defensive end reps more evenly. Johnson played 42 of 71 defensive snaps, trailed by Ealy (40), Mario Addison (36) and Horton (29).
Ealy lined up on both sides. But his biggest plays came when he was aligned opposite right tackle D.J. Humphries, a Charlotte native whom the Panthers were interested in drafting in 2015 before the Cardinals took him one spot before Carolina picked.
Ealy didn’t have any sacks, but he drove past or through Humphries several times. That forced Palmer to step up in the pocket, including on one of Lotulelei’s three sacks.
Johnson and defensive tackle Kawann Short also had sacks, giving the line five of the eight sacks, which were the second-most in team history.
Ealy said it was good to generate pressure from the base, four-man rush.
“It doesn’t matter what the game plan is. We are the game plan as players,” he said. “And our job is to make the coaches right.”
With the Panthers leading 30-20 with about three minutes left, Ealy salted the win away by intercepting Palmer. Lined up on the left again, Ealy stunted to his right and leaped to block a Palmer pass, which hit Ealy in the chest.
Ealy tipped the ball to himself for the game-sealing pick.
“That’s just tremendous athleticism by Kony Ealy,” analyst Daryl Johnston said on the FOX broadcast. “And kind of fitting that it’s somebody from that defensive line that makes the huge play at the end of the game.”