It wasn’t that long ago that a lack of a consistent pass rush held a prominent spot on the checklist of what’s wrong with the Carolina Panthers?
The Panthers collected only 12 sacks through the first six games, and started 1-5.
The team’s defensive linemen – third-year end Kony Ealy in particular – vowed things would get better and tried to reassure fans by saying when the sacks came, they would come in bunches.
Two months later, the Panthers lead the league in sacks.
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Carolina’s 39 sacks are one better than the Denver Broncos, and the Minnesota Vikings are third with 35.
Washington – the Panthers’ opponent Monday night – is fourth with 34 sacks.
Explaining the Panthers’ pass-rush turnaround isn’t as simple as pointing to one defensive player or even a single position group.
“It’s never one thing,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “I know sometimes you guys want me to say, ‘Well, it’s just this. Here was the magic deal.’ No, it’s working hard. It’s earning the right to be good. We got off to maybe a slow start in that (sacks) category. But the guys have worked extremely hard. The coaches have worked extremely hard to get it to where it is right now.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera pointed to a combination of factors that jump-started the sputtering pass rush.
He said the development of a young secondary has forced quarterbacks to hold the longer, and McDermott has found opportune times to blitz.
“When you look at the play of the corners, the play of the safeties, I think that’s huge. They go hand in hand,” Rivera said this week. “If you’re rushing the quarterback well, the (defensive backs) are going to get a chance to make plays on the ball. When the DBs are playing well and taking away certain things, it’s going to allow the pass rush time to get there.”
“And then part of it all, too, is timely pressure. That part goes to the coordinator and his staff. So I think those guys have done a great job.”
The Panthers also have benefited from facing immobile, pocket passers (Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers) and overmatched quarterbacks (the Rams’ Case Keenum).
Carolina got its pass-rush groove back with 12 combined sacks against Arizona and Los Angeles, including eight against the Cardinals’ Palmer that were the second-most in Panthers’ history.
Not just one guy
Carolina has climbed to the top of the sacks list despite the lack of a dominant pass rusher. The Panthers haven’t had an elite edge rusher since Greg Hardy, whose 15 sacks in 2013 paced Carolina’s league-leading and team-record total of 60.
The Panthers’ sack leader this season is situational edge rusher Mario Addison, whose 7.5 sacks are tied for 20th in the league.
Addison missed two games with a foot injury, but returned last week to post one of five sacks against San Diego’s Rivers. Addison’s fourth-quarter sack resulted in a safety and set the final score in the Panthers’ 28-16 victory.
Defensive end Wes Horton said getting Addison back was big for the Panthers’ pressure on Rivers, who lost fumbles on two of the sacks.
“Mario is our third-down, go-to guy,” Horton said. “To have him back in the lineup, I think it kind of put a spark in everybody, knowing he was back out there.”
The Horton factor
Horton’s insertion into the starting lineup before the Arizona game coincided with the Panthers’ spike in sacks. Horton’s more of a run-stuffer, but the move pushed Ealy into a reserve role and seemed to take some of the pressure off the 2014 second-round pick.
Ealy hasn’t come close to matching his production from Super Bowl 50, when he had an MVP-like performance (three sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and fumble recovery) against Peyton Manning.
But he at least broke into the sack column, with three over the past six games.
Kawann Short also has failed to meet the expectations he set with an 11-sack season in 2015, the highest total by a defensive tackle in team history. Short brought back memories of his Pro Bowl form from 2015 with a monster game against Rivers.
Short, who will be a free agent after the season, had sacks on each of the Chargers’ first two possessions, including a sack-fumble the Panthers recovered.
The breakout game still left Short with only five sacks on the season. But Horton said the former second-round pick from Purdue helps set the tone up front.
“Every week he’s consistent. He brings it,” Horton said. “We just rely on guys like that to be the factor in those crucial points of the game, third and fourth quarter when the game’s on the line.”
Not the whole picture
While the sack surge has been welcome, the Panthers still rank near the bottom of the NFL in total defense (23rd) and scoring defense (26th). This figures to be the first time since 2011 the Panthers will not finish among the league’s top 10 defenses.
But after Rivers had five turnovers and was sacked five times against a Panthers team missing Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Charles Johnson, the former N.C. State standout gave McDermott’s group a shout-out.
“I know they didn’t have (Kuechly) and they’re missing (Josh Norman) from last year, but it’s a good defense,” Rivers said.
Especially when the pass rush is clicking.
Carolina Panthers’ sack totals the past four seasons:
* team record; ** through 13 games