Mario Addison can’t let the other guy get his hands on him.
Addison, a fourth-year defensive end with the Carolina Panthers, is undersized for his position at 260 pounds. A typical NFL left offensive tackle weighs at least 305 pounds and can outmuscle Addison.
So Addison relies on his speed and agility to get around or slide under linemen to get the quarterback. This year at training camp, he’s done that better than ever.
“He brings a different type of pass rush to the game,” defensive end Frank Alexander said. “He’s so fast off the ball, he gets up on you real quick. He’s been doing ... what he always does, and that’s rush the passer.”
Most of Addison’s recognition this summer comes from his training camp proclamation last week that the Panthers will win the Super Bowl. But those who watch football closely have noted Addison as a potential breakout pass rusher in 2015.
That’s because Addison is finding his groove in his fourth year in the league as he competes with Alexander and Kony Ealy at right defensive end. Not only is he learning how to use his speed, but he’s also incorporating new hand techniques that will get an offensive lineman’s hands off him and help him get to the quarterback more quickly.
Though he’s quick off the ball, his path to NFL defensive end took a little more time.
Addison played quarterback and running back in high school in Alabama. His poor academic record forced him to go to a junior college, where the coaches immediately moved him to defense – against his wishes.
At Northeast Mississippi Community College, Addison stood out first as a linebacker and then as a defensive end, where he had 21 1/2 tackles for loss in his second season. Addison finally got his grades up to play at Troy University, where he remained a defensive end.
The Bears signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and he played for Indianapolis and Washington before coming to Carolina at the end of the 2012 season.
He totaled just 2 1/2 sacks in 2013 before breaking out last year for 7 1/2, including one in the playoff game at Seattle. But he realized in the offseason that he needs to be more than just speed.
“Mario is using his biggest asset – his speed,” defensive line coach Eric Washington said. “And along with that, he’s starting to develop and coordinate his rush-hands technique to go along with that speed because it’s not all speed. He’s really developing his hands, his developing his awareness of certain situations, the position the tackle is going to be in – and he’s taken advantage of those things.”
What has become Addison’s favorite move is a simple one. At the snap, offensive tackles start to get depth as they ready for Addison’s speed. As Addison nears, he sticks out his left arm and pushes the tackle back to create space.
“When they back up, they’ve got to honor my speed,” Addison said. “So if they back up too quick I use their momentum against them. I help them out. I stick the long arm here and knock them off balance.
“When they’re bailing, I’m going to help them out.”
Addison’s speed comes from his relatively small size for the position. That also means that he’s not an every-down defensive end, because he isn’t big enough to consistently support the run defense. He’s typically in the game on third down or in obvious passing situations, when he rushes the passer or drops into coverage.
“The thing we’ve got to remember, Mario’s a situational guy,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s been very, very good for us in those situations. He’s a change-up pass rusher. Probably the one thing you’ll always be concerned with with Mario is his stoutness. Could he hold up?”
Addison could always gain about 20 pounds, but he would lose both his speed and ability to play on special teams. Carolina’s special teams unit use him on about nine plays per game, and he needs to keep his weight down in order to fly down the field on kickoffs, for example.
On defense, he averages about 26 plays per game, out of an opponent’s usual 65 to 70 snaps.
“Everybody has their role, and I’m a good special teams player,” Addison said. “So it would be very selfish of me to say I want to play an every-down end when I could be helping defense and special teams at the same time.”
Of course he’d like to be the Pro Bowl defensive end, he says, but he’s happy where he is. If and when the time comes where he can do more, he’ll jump at it.
“To be real, it’s OK with me,” Addison said. “Look at me, I made impacts coming off the bench, and I still finished with 7.5 sacks. It’s really not when you get the opportunity, it’s what you do when you get the opportunity.”