Off the field, you never really know what you’re going to get with Carolina Panthers defensive end Mario Addison.
For starters, he’s great at keeping a straight face behind his large, well-groomed beard while clowning you, spinning yarns sometimes for minutes until the big reveal: He was kidding the whole time.
This week, he pretended to run from converging reporters, then turned and said “Nah, just (messing) with you,” and came back to speak for 15 minutes (and spent five of them expressing his disdain for Chipotle’s queso dip).
He also keeps a low profile off the field, revealing only recently that he prefers watching movies and television shows to sports, that he’s binge-watching “The Walking Dead,” and that his go-to meal is, in fact, a Chipotle burrito (hold the queso, please).
His good deeds often go unnoticed.
The week before Christmas he bused a group of youths from public housing in his hometown of Birmingham to Charlotte and treated them to a game against the Green Bay Packers and a night at Dave & Busters. Oh, and his 10th sack of the year, on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Addison didn’t share that act of kindness publicly, preferring to fly under the radar.
But on the field, he’s anything but low-profile.
Addison, 30, finished the regular season tied with veteran and future first-ballot Hall of Fame defensive end Julius Peppers for the team lead in sacks (11).
Against New Orleans in the wild-card game this Sunday, Addison’s particular rushing style becomes even more important.
Saints coach Sean Payton said Wednesday that he has his eye on Addison – and his remote on Addison’s last few weeks of tape – ahead of Sunday’s game, and for good reason: In his past four matchups against the Saints, Addison has 4.5 sacks.
“Man, he’s played exceptionally well,” said Payton. “He’s got great get-off. He’s got great bend. And I think that flexibility, you can see he’s a really smart football player.
“Handling that front, and knowing that on your left side is someone like Mario that really is a threat both in the run and the pass game. You have to be really smart with your protections. And I think he’s played some of his best football this year.”
Long gone are the days when he could barely hang onto a roster.
Brandon Beane’s proudest pickup
After Carolina’s former assistant general manager Brandon Beane was hired by the Buffalo Bills this summer, he said his proudest free-agency pickup was Addison.
A former undrafted free-agent pickup by Chicago out of Troy, Addison struggled to stick in 2011 and 2012. On four different teams, he was released five times in two seasons.
But the Panthers saw potential in Addison, and he worked his way into their rotation in 2013, playing in all 16 games and starting two. He led the team with 9.5 sacks as a situational rusher in 2016, earning a three-year, $22.5 million extension from then-Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman.
Now he’s a starter opposite Peppers, and the two competed sack-for-sack all season.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said Addison’s commitment to perfection is what has allowed him to succeed, along with the ideal pairing of Addison and defensive line coach Eric Washington.
“I really want to give a lot of credit to Coach Washington,” Wilks said. “I think over time you have seen that with the guys that we’ve had here and their development, and Mario is definitely one of those guys that has benefited.”
Addison also benefits from the high-caliber play of interior linemen Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, whose ability to occupy multiple linemen at times helps him win one-on-one matchups with tackles, and from his do-it-all attitude in Wilks’ aggressive, blitz-heavy attack.
“The guy keeps his mouth shut and just works,” defensive end Wes Horton said. “He just really responds to what Coach Washington is asking of him. He’s an exceptional pass-rusher. He knows it, and he never gets complacent. He’s always trying to find room in his game to get better. And he just comes with the right attitude every single week.”
Why so underestimated?
Even as a statistical leader on a defensive line ranked No. 2 in the NFL in sacks, Addison isn’t mentioned much in the conversation about the league’s elite pass-rushers.
Horton thinks it’s because Addison, at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, is undersized on paper. Safety Kurt Coleman has other reasoning.
“People don’t talk about him because it might not be as sexy a name as a Von Miller, or whoever,” said Coleman. “But he’s very productive. And I think Mario is a premiere pass-rusher in this league.
“The things he’s able to do, like his spin move is nasty. The thing that people don’t give him a lot of credit for is (his) power. So he’ll set up his speed, set up his speed, and then he’ll hit a tackle with a power rush and push him all the way back into the pocket and get the sack.
“I think that’s why he’s so effective. Because you fear the speed. That’s what everyone sees on tape. And then he’ll hit you with something else.”
Addison’s speed will be much-needed against Brees, a quarterback known for his quick release. His power will be key when helping set the edge against the dynamic and slippery running back tandem of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. The two backs gashed the Panthers for game-changing runs in both Week 3 and Week 13 losses.
Payton may be thinking of ways to get Brees away from Carolina’s pass rush, but Addison has his eye on avoiding a third loss this season to New Orleans.
“We can’t let them beat us three times,” said Addison. “You’ve got to come out swinging. You’ve got to throw everything at them, including the kitchen sink.”