After Carolina’s 9-3 win Sunday over Buffalo, Julius Peppers said of the current Carolina Panthers team: “This is the best defense I have ever played on.”
For a 16-year veteran who has never been prone to hyperbole, that’s quite a quote. Peppers repeated it a few minutes later, to make sure everyone understood what he was saying.
Is it really? Too early to tell. But there is no doubt that the 2017 Panthers defense is off to the finest defensive start in team history.
Never before have the Panthers not allowed a touchdown in their opening two games. Never before have they allowed a total of only six points through Week 2.
Those numbers could change dramatically if the Panthers don’t watch out. The next two quarterbacks the Panthers play are named Drew Brees and Tom Brady, while the first two were named Brian Hoyer and Tyrod Taylor.
Still, this has been an extraordinary start for the D, and Peppers, 37, has been an enormous part of it. He led Carolina with two sacks Sunday in his first real home game for his original NFL team since the 2009 season. That pushed him to a team-high 2.5 sacks in two games.
Said Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn when asked what Peppers’ secret to longevity has been: “I don’t know, man, but I really want to find out because I want to play the game as long as he is doing. … He looks like he can play another 4-5 years.”
“A freak of nature,” Panthers defensive end Mario Addison, who also had a sack Sunday, said of Peppers. “He’s one of those guys who gets better with age.”
Peppers, who ranks No. 5 all-time on the NFL sack list, called himself the “beneficiary” of a good overall pass rush Sunday. And indeed the Panthers put more pressure on Taylor than their three-sack total might attest.
Perhaps more importantly, Carolina also completely shut down one of the best running backs in the league, LeSean McCoy, by holding him to 9 yards on 12 carries. Buffalo only had one first down the entire first half.
As defensive end Charles Johnson described Carolina’s defense Sunday: “Eleven guys, running to the rock.”
A drop at the end
All that good work threatened to come undone on Buffalo’s final drive, however. But Taylor’s fourth-and-11 pass from the Carolina 33 was dropped by Bills receiver Zay Jones – who had gotten behind cornerback James Bradberry – just short of the end zone. Because Jones couldn’t make a somewhat difficult catch, Carolina ended up only allowing three points for the second week in a row.
“I thought it was a nice performance again,” Peppers said. “We did solid. Played the run really well. ... We’ll take wins how they come. They are all not going to be pretty. They are not all going to be offensive outbursts.
“Sometimes defense has got to win the game.”
This is true, and that’s what happened Sunday. Fans sat through a three-hour game that featured exactly zero touchdowns but did see a victory.
To score only nine points and win an NFL game is unusual. It never would have happened for the Panthers last season – the opposing team scored at least 10 points in every Panthers game in 2016. But Carolina has now won games in 2017 by scores of 23-3 and 9-3.
But this defense has been shored up considerably by the addition of Peppers at defensive end, Munnerlyn at nickel back and safety Mike Adams as well as the return of Luke Kuechly, who missed the last six games of 2016. Add in linebacker Thomas Davis, safety Kurt Coleman and Addison – all heavily involved in some huge plays Sunday – and things look a lot more promising.
Brees, Brady loom
Can the defense get better?
“Absolutely,” Adams said. “We missed some tackles. And we didn’t create any turnovers.”
Peppers knows, however, that the ugliness of Sunday’s win won’t matter.
“In December,” he said, “we’re not going to see what the score was in this game. We are just going to see it was a win. We’ve got to continue to win games, and at the end of the year we’ll let everything sort itself out.”
So far, the sorting is going well. Carolina didn’t win its second game in 2016 until the day before Halloween.
Now it is 2-0 and about to face Brees and New Orleans next Sunday in Charlotte and then Brady and New England the week after that in Foxboro, Mass.
Those two games will give us a good idea if what Peppers said about this being the best defense he has ever played on is really true.
But so far, No. 90 has been so, so good – and so has the rest of this defense.