Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kyle Love isn’t sayin’, but let’s face it, he’s sayin’.
“Right now, I’m hearing a lot of rumors that we’re the best defensive line in the league,” he said with a grin, after a 31-24 victory over Minnesota on Sunday that snapped an eight-game Vikings win streak. The Panthers racked up a season-high six sacks against a front that had only given up 14 on the year entering the game.
Is Love the one starting those rumors?
“I’m not startin’ ‘em,” he said. “I’m just not avoiding them.”
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The Carolina defensive line is having a rollicking good time this season, especially lately. Rallying from the loss of veteran teammate Charles Johnson, who will miss the next two games in a four-game suspension after violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy, Mario Addison and 37-year-old Julius Peppers are stepping up their pressure.
Addison strip-sacked Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum and safety Mike Adams recovered, and Peppers sacked Keenum in the second quarter for a loss of 6 yards. The two are racing to be the team’s sack leader, tied at 9.5 apiece.
Let that marinate for a moment.
A 30-year-old who went undrafted and couldn’t stick to a practice squad let alone a roster before the Panthers picked him up and a first-ballot Hall of Famer are battling for sacks to the point where Peppers stood and argued his case to a referee on a sack in the third quarter. (It was ultimately credited to Love, amid much cajoling debate in the locker room afterward.)
“Hey, listen, I hit him. And then they all were hitting me. I was the one of top of him, then they were on top of me so I don’t know how they thought they had the sack at the end of the day,” Love joked.
Carolina capitalized heavily on the three key players missing from Minnesota’s line on Sunday. Love had his sack and defensive tackle Kawann Short had two – one on a crucial third down at the end of the game and another to force a long third down that stalled a potential Minnesota comeback.
And linebacker Luke Kuechly had a team-high 14 tackles, making him the first player in franchise history to record 100-plus tackles in each of his first six seasons.
But the race for pressure between the two starting defensive ends is a joy to behold for Love, who let a little of his fanboy voice pop out when he talked about rotating in with Peppers.
“You’ve got two legends, Mario and Peppers, you know what I mean? And it’s just amazing to be beside those guys, and being able to get sacks with them,” he said. “Which they share – a little bit.
“I say all the time, it’s like a dream come true to just play beside Peppers because I watched him in high school. So it’s kind of cool.”
Pressure up front hurt Minnesota’s run game – Carolina held its opponent without a 100-yard rusher for the 17th-straight game – but also worked wonders for the Panthers’ cornerbacks, who entered the game without an interception among them this year.
On Minnesota’s game-opening drive, second-year corner Daryl Worley snagged his first of the year on an underthrown ball by Keenum. It was the second of his career.
“I was thankful for the defensive line to make the throw a little bit erratic,” said Worley. “We know when we have turnovers as a defense, it sparks our team to a whole other level. The offense, they play with a whole different confidence.”
Bradberry, the cornerback drafted just ahead of Worley and his counterpart on the outside, had an interception of his own in the fourth quarter. Bradberry said he noticed the Vikings set up in a play identical to one he had seen earlier in the drive, and Bradberry said he thought Stefon Diggs took his eye off the ball when he felt Bradberry’s presence.
“That was really fun, it was crazy. I’ve never been a part of a game like that,” Bradberry said. “But when (Worley) caught his, I knew I had to do something. I had to make a play, or something.”
Worley laughed, and said he was more excited for Bradberry’s pick than he was for his own. The two have been drawn together often in strange coincidences this season, starting with having to get IVs together in Week 1 after cramping up on the very same play.
“That’s the way the season is going right now, we’re just connected at all times,” said Bradberry. “But it’s good things though, it’s not anything bad.”
The Panthers are 5-0 when they win the turnover battle, and 8-0 when they out-pressure the other team up front. The two, of course, are complementary.
But the defensive line set the tone.
“They did what they are capable of, and that was what we needed to do,” Rivera said. “We needed to be physical at the line, and put ourselves in position.”
And for his part, Love has never been this happy.
“It’s beautiful to be out there, and go out there and drop off and play,” he said. “We just all go out there and feed off each other and play hard.
“I’m like, really happy right now. Really happy. The month of December is the most important month of the football season, especially when you’re in the running for playoffs. We just have to come together, and keep doing what we’re doing, finish games a little better and keep winning.”