The Carolina Panthers’ front four was the team’s punching bag through the first six games, beaten up publicly for an anemic pass rush that exposed a young and inexperienced cornerback group.
The defensive linemen turned the tables Sunday, giving Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer the full piñata treatment in Carolina’s 30-20 victory against the Cardinals.
The victory snapped a four-game losing streak for the Panthers (2-5), who won for the first time since Week 2.
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It was a victory fueled by almost constant pressure on Palmer, who was sacked eight times – the most in his 13-year career.
The eight sacks were the second-most in Panthers history, trailing only a nine-sack game against Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan during the regular-season finale in 2013.
The return of the pass rush couldn’t have come at a better time.
Injuries and suspect personnel decisions have turned the cornerback rotation into a kiddy corps that was shredded by Ryan and New Orleans’ Drew Brees to the tune of 968 yards.
While Palmer finished with 363 yards, the bulk of them came when Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott backed off on the blitzes and conceded a lot of underneath throws.
“The rush and coverage working together – we’ve been harping on that all year. And it finally worked out. It finally happened,” defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said. “The coverage gave us the time we needed to get there and I feel like we did a great job of working together as a defensive front.”
To tell you the truth, it kind of caught me off guard that they wanted the ball first. But who can blame them, with all the film we’ve been putting on lately?
The Panthers’ pressure provided the bookends to Sunday’s win.
Lotulelei started things on the Cardinals’ opening drive with a sack and forced fumble that linebacker Thomas Davis returned 46 yards for his first career touchdown.
Kony Ealy didn’t get in on the sack attack, but the oft-criticized defensive end sealed the victory with an athletic interception with about three minutes left after Palmer had pulled the Cardinals (3-4-1) within 10.
Back to Lotulelei, the quieter of the two defensive tackles whom general manager Dave Gettleman drafted in the first two rounds in 2013 as the original hog mollies.
Lotulelei doesn’t say much. So when he said after the game he was miffed that Arizona coach Bruce Arians opted to take the ball after winning the coin toss, you knew it irritated the big Tongan.
“To tell you the truth, it kind of caught me off guard that they wanted the ball first. But who can blame them, with all the film we’ve been putting on lately?” Lotulelei said. “But we came out and we set the tone. We didn’t wait for anybody else. We scored and we kept it rolling.”
The Cardinals questioned the Panthers’ early score, saying Palmer shoveled the ball to running back David Johnson to avoid the sack and had not fumbled. The officials didn’t see it that way, though, confirming the touchdown through instant replay.
“I was throwing to Dave,” Palmer said. “It was an obvious pass at that. I’m surprised the refs didn’t see it that way.”
Lotulelei wasn’t too concerned about the details.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They called it, said it was a sack-fumble. So I’ll take it.”
Lotulelei finished with a career-high three sacks, matching his highest season total.
His previous single-game high for sacks was two against Atlanta in 2014, but surely he’d had three in a game in high school or college, right?
“Nope,” Lotulelei said, grinning. “Never.”
Defensive tackle Kawann Short was drafted a round behind Lotulelei and overshadowed him in 2015 with an 11-sack season that represented the most by a defensive tackle in franchise history.
It was Lotulelei’s world on Sunday, though, and the other defenders were just fighting for scraps.
“It was his game. He did everything,” Short said of his trenchmate. “Everybody just rode his coattail and did what we are capable of doing.”
It remains to be seen whether the Panthers’ front four is capable of doing this the rest of the season.
The Cardinals’ offensive line had given up 17 sacks entering the game and lost left tackle Jared Veldheer to an arm injury in the second half.
Ealy said it’s a sign of things to come, regardless of what critics think.
“We get a lot of grief if we play bad, if we have bad games, but we’re the only people that understand what we’re going through,” Ealy said. “It’s the process over, over and over. And I keep saying the same thing. Y’all are going to figure it out sooner or later.”
The Panthers’ D-line figured it out – at least for a day.
Defensive end Charles Johnson used a social media reference in describing the importance of a rediscovered pass rush.
“It’s a game-changer. Any time you can get sacks on quarterbacks, get pressure on them ... it can change the game,” he said. “Hopefully we can keep this trending topic going.”