Carolina Panthers

Irvin compares Panthers defense to all-time great D. Wishful thinking? Or the truth?

Bruce Irvin brought it up without being asked, this idea he’s been carrying around with him since the defensive end joined the Carolina Panthers in March.

Irvin was walking back from a minicamp practice when I asked him about what the defensive line looked like.

“Great,” he said. And then, a few sentences later: “This kind of compares to that 2013 front we had, when we won the Super Bowl.”

Irvin was referring to one of the great NFL defenses of the past decade — the 2013 Seattle Seahawks. That Seahawks D – nicknamed the “Legion of Boom” — eviscerated Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, 43-8, in the Super Bowl that season. Standouts like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett helped Seattle finish No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed and takeaways.

Irvin was listed as a linebacker for that team, but he also frequently rushed in pass situations. For the Panthers, he will play a similar sort of hybrid defensive end/linebacker role.

“That team went eight deep up front,” Irvin said of the Seahawks. “We had four really good guys, and then four more went in and there was no drop-off. So that’s kind of the feeling I’m getting here. We had a lot of dudes. Everybody communicated. That’s the kind of vibe it is here.”

Carolina Panthers linebacker/defensive end Bruce Irvin, left, has been getting to know his new teammates like linebacker Shaq Thompson. Jeff Siner

So is that wishful thinking? Or will it become an accurate prediction?

With the retirement of Julius Peppers and the departure of Thomas Davis to the Los Angeles Chargers, this Panthers defense is both younger and not as recognizable. Although young players like linebacker Shaq Thompson and cornerback Donte Jackson appear poised to take a leap, only middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is a household name. And the team’s pass rush was downright anemic in 2018 — the Panthers finished a disappointing 27th in the league in sacks.

Hybrid player, hybrid defense

Irvin, 31, was hired in part to improve that pass rush. The Panthers have seen him perform for years, and he spent a large part of his career being a pain in the neck to Cam Newton.

Irvin played for the Seahawks from 2012 (as the No. 15 overall draft pick, out of West Virginia) to 2015, a time period where Seattle went 4-2 against Carolina. Irvin has experience playing both outside linebacker and defensive end, and his 6-3, 250-pound size has long allowed him to rotate between the two positions as needed.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) no longer has to worry about getting sacked by Bruce Irvin, who joined the Panthers in 2019. David T. Foster III

Mario Addison, the Panthers’ veteran defensive end, complimented Irvin in particular the other day as a great teacher of how a defensive end should drop into coverage.

“Bruce has played in the 3-4,” Addison said. “So all the drop stuff – I’m looking at him.”

The Panthers aren’t switching entirely to a 3-4, but their new “multiple” system will rotate between 3-4 and 4-3 looks up front. Seattle did some of the same sorts of things, often playing a base 4-3 but with 3-4 personnel – so using only three big guys up front and one faster guy who was more Irvin’s size.

Irvin has dropped into coverage a lot more than many of the Panthers’ pass rushers – he has three career interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. But he downplayed how much he and Addison actually will fade into pass coverage.

“For me and Mario, it’s basically just rushing,” Irvin said. “We drop every now and then, just to keep the offense honest. But for the most part, it’s rushing.”

‘You can keep a job that way’

Irvin has 43.5 career sacks. He’s never had a double-digit sack year, but he’s been good for somewhere between five and eight for most of his previous seven seasons. Even in 2018, when he split time between Oakland and Atlanta, he had 6.5 sacks, which would have ranked second on the Panthers.

Sacks remain his favorite part of the game, Irvin said.

“You know when you wake up on Christmas as a kid?” Irvin said. “That’s how it feels. It’s so hard to get sacks. When you’re consistent and you’re able to get them all the time, that means something. You can keep a job that way.”

Speaking of keeping a job, Irvin is a rental for the Panthers in 2019. He signed a one-year deal in March for about $4 million. What happens in March 2020, when the free-agency period opens once more, will be interesting. But if he has a good season, Irvin is the sort of veteran leader you can see being a Panther for awhile.

“We’ve got a great group of guys that can rush their tails off,” Irvin said, “and I can’t wait to get it started.”

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.