Carolina Panthers

From stars to fringe players, Panthers defense sets tone for victory

Julius Peppers on being a Panther again: 'You guys finally caught up to me'

Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Julius Peppers is happy to return to Charlotte and pleased with team's defense against the San Francisco 49ers.
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Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Julius Peppers is happy to return to Charlotte and pleased with team's defense against the San Francisco 49ers.

. Carolina’s quietest defensive lineman and a Panthers backup were first in line to cash in the checks the line wrote this preseason.

Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and defensive end Wes Horton set the tone of the Panthers’ 23-3 victory against the San Francisco 49ers.

The Panthers’ pass rush finished with four sacks and eight quarterback hurries.

Hassling quarterbacks early in the year was a huge point of emphasis for Carolina this season after the Panthers struggled to get their pass rush going until the halfway point of 2016.

Horton, a fringe player in 2016, came in in the first quarter to spell starting rusher Mario Addison, and on his very first snap he strip-sacked 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer. Lotulelei, the line’s silent, space-eating anchor, recovered it at the San Francisco 42.

“I was slanting into the B-gap, and just to have a guard in space against a defensive end, that’s a good matchup,” Horton said. “I was able to make a quick move on him. ... Hoyer was right there, didn’t even see me.”

The play gave Horton a strip sack in four consecutive games, dating to the 2016 season.

“It just shows that he’s more than capable as a football player,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s been solid for us. (There are) those guys that are just kind of on the edge, but he’s just been so steady for us. That’s why we brought him back last year, and that’s why he’s starting off on the roster, and deservedly so, just because of who he is for us.” .

Lotulelei had already shed his block and scooped up the ball. The defensive tackle also made a fourth-down stop late in the second quarter that gave Carolina the ball back at its 45.

“There were some really good things up front,” said Rivera. “Probably one of the things we talked about was how the tackles had to play. And Star does this thing that people don’t quite understand, and that’s when you’re a space-eater, your linebackers get to run.

“That’s probably the most important thing. Thomas (Davis) was able to run. Luke (Kuechly) was able to run. Shaq (Thompson) was able to run.”

And they ran wild. The three linebackers combined for 16 tackles, two sacks for 15 yards, an interception for 23 yards, three quarterback hurries and a pass defensed.

Thompson recorded a sack in the first quarter and was key on an early play in which he tracked speedy back Matt Breida on a long counter, matched the back step-for-step and then pushed him out of bounds.

Kuechly showed his athleticism with a twisting one-handed interception in the third quarter that he returned for 23 yards to set up a Panthers’ touchdown. (Carolina scored 14 points off of San Francisco turnovers, and while the Panthers turned the ball over twice, but those turnovers didn’t lead to points).

And Davis certainly didn’t look like a 34-year-old linebacker. He made two of Carolina’s fourth down stops – the first of which was a sack on Hoyer for an 8-yard loss in the second quarter.

The second was on the heels of Davis’ own third-and-goal stop on physical 49ers running back Carlos Hyde. As San Francisco elected to go for the score on fourth and goal, only a yard away from a touchdown, the offense lined up in a sneaky formation that favored a stack on the right side. Davis shifted accordingly, and was able to bring down Hyde again and prevent the touchdown.

San Francisco went for the conversion on fourth down four times throughout the game, and only got it once.

“We take a lot of pride in that, because we understand how big of a momentum shift it is when you’re able to do that to a football team,” said Davis. “We did a good job of executing defensively and really kept them off balance.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue