Carolina Panthers

Deep Panthers pass rush needs a burst out of the gate to reach potential in 2017

The eight sacks against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8 was a turning point for the Carolina Panthers pass rushing defense.
The eight sacks against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8 was a turning point for the Carolina Panthers pass rushing defense.

Thomas Davis has seen a lot of defensive tackles line up in front of him during his 12 years in the NFL.

The Carolina Panthers “lifer” linebacker has blitzed alongside a lot of talented defensive ends, too, and contributed four sacks to Carolina’s franchise-record 60 in 2013.

But Davis sees an even higher ceiling in the group he lines up behind now.

“It truly can be a special season,” he said. “A few years ago we were able to set the sack record.

“But I think this group that we have is capable of being better than that.”

Bigger, faster, stronger

In the offseason, Carolina took steps to fortify its pass rush.

The Panthers signed versatile defensive tackle Kawann Short to a long-term deal, extended defensive ends Mario Addison and veteran Charles Johnson, and brought back future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers in free agency.

Peppers and Johnson are the team’s No. 1 and No. 2 franchise sack leaders; Short is one of the more gifted rushing tackles in the league and Addison, used only situationally last season, still led the team with 9.5 sacks.

Addison will be an anchor opposite the rotation of Johnson and Peppers, to maximize both the health and efficiency of the two older players while also allowing Addison to become more of an every-down rusher. Having either Peppers or Johnson opposite him might be an immense help in freeing up Addison if the veterans are double-teamed – or vice versa. After all, there can only be so many blockers.

Addison trained at a heavier weight this spring with the plan to immediately cut the extra pounds in the summer heat of training camp in Spartanburg. The logic behind this, he said, was to increase his speed once the pounds inevitably dropped.

His confidence in his speed, plus his opportunity to more rapidly assess the tackles that will challenge him, make him excited for his expanded role.

“I won’t have to only come in on third down anymore, so I’ll be able to feel out the tackle much quicker,” he said. “I’m going (to) start fast. I can only speak for me; that’s my main goal this year is to start fast.”

Building depth

During Carolina’s preseason joint practices with Tennessee in Nashville, Short indicated that as veterans Peppers and Johnson go, so does the line.

But Peppers is 37, with a one-year deal, and Johnson is 31 and coming off a microdiscectomy procedure this spring. Depth is important.

Carolina brought back promising young talent Wes Horton in free agency, and he will lend depth behind Addison. The Panthers also drafted Daeshon Hall in the third round as a project with a lot of upside. Hall was an outside linebacker who was converted his senior year at Texas A&M to defensive end to start opposite No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett.

“It’s great chemistry,” Addison said. “We have depth. We have guys who can come up the path and do the exact same thing the vet guys can do.

“We can count on each other. It doesn’t matter who’s in the game, we all can get it done.”

Starting fast, staying hungry

Last season, Carolina’s pass rush didn’t wake up until halfway through the year.

Until the Panthers collected eight sacks, one short of the team’s single-game record, against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8, not a single defensive end or tackle had amassed multiple sacks.

The lack of pressure applied to opposing quarterbacks played a contributing role in the stress already placed on a piecemeal secondary with two rookie corners and no dependable nickel.

Once the rush woke up and the secondary developed and became more complementary to the defensive line, it became a juggernaut. Carolina finished the season with the second-most sacks in the NFL, behind Arizona.

Starting the season with that same kind of burst will be tough despite the prodigious talent.

“We just have to stay hungry,” Addison said. “Stay ready, so we don’t have to get ready.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue