The Carolina Panthers have quietly inched their way near the top of the NFL’s sacks chart.
Quietly seems like the operative word because they’ve done it without having anyone among the top 20 individuals in the league in sacks, and because they no longer have a face-painting defensive end with a sea creature alter-ego leading the charge.
Heading into Sunday’s game at New Orleans the Panthers are third in the league with 33 sacks, trailing Denver (37) and New England (35).
While they’re off the pace of the team-record 60 sacks they piled up in 2013, the Panthers have proven they can still rattle opposing passers without the presence of Greg Hardy and his game-day Kraken persona.
It’s more of a balanced pass-rush attack this season, featuring four players with at least four sacks. That list does not include defensive end Charles Johnson, who collected one sack before missing two months while on short-term injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
And while defensive Jared Allen is the NFL’s active sacks leader with 136, he’s part of a Carolina front four that generates a pass rush more collectively that the 2013 team that relied heavily on ends Hardy (15 sacks) and Johnson (11).
The group takes its cue from defensive line coach Eric Washington, who expects everyone to be a threat to take down the quarterback.
“That’s his motto: Everybody’s a threat,” Allen said Tuesday. “And you’ve got to like it because you’re not setting up for one guy. It’s everybody getting after it, which can create a frenzy.”
That frenzy has been boosted by an improved push from the interior of the Panthers’ four-man front. Kawann Short, a third-year defensive tackle, leads Carolina with six sacks, which ranks fourth among defensive tackles.
Short is one sack shy of matching Kris Jenkins, whose seven sacks in 2002 are the most by a Panthers defensive tackle.
‘Interior rush is huge’
Allen says when the defensive tackles can push the pocket, the entire front four benefits.
“Interior rush is huge,” Allen said. “If the quarterback can’t step up, it makes it a lot easier on the outside guys.”
Short, the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for October, has been held without a sack the past three weeks as he’s faced more double-team blocks. But that has helped give Kony Ealy 1-on-1 matchups on the edge, and the second-year end has responded with a sack in each of the past five games.
“We get a lot of six-man protections. ... That’s just how we’ve been rushing,” Short said. “They double team us and a lot of the guys like Kony on the outside and the other D-tackle come open.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera says having the league’s No. 2 run defense has created a lot of favorable pass-rush situations.
“I think a lot of it has been that we’ve been putting them in second-and-longs,” Rivera said. “That’s a big benefit to your pass rush.”
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott also has mixed in the occasional blitz. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis has already matched his career high with four sacks.
‘Everyone’s a threat’
Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards says the Panthers don’t have anyone who’s “just out there taking up blocks,” which makes their defense tougher to scheme against.
“It’s pretty easy to take one guy out of a game if you double (team) or chip him” with a running back or tight end,” Edwards said. “But if you’ve got all four guys who are a threat to win, and rush and get the quarterback on the ground, it makes it so much harder to do.”
That “everyone’s a threat” approach is apparent in the Panthers’ defensive end rotation. With Johnson returning from IR last week and joining Allen in the starting lineup, two of the Panthers’ top sack producers – speed rusher Mario Addison and Ealy – come off the bench.
“We rush as a team. We rush as a unit. We’re not expecting one guy to win every time. We expect everybody to win. When you get in a 1-on-1, we expect you to win,” said Allen, acquired in a trade with Chicago after Johnson was injured in Week 3 against New Orleans.
“We know balls are going to be out quick, we know that stuff’s going to happen,” Allen added. “But you continue to rush and hopefully at the end of the game you’ve got a lead, it’ll pay off (when quarterbacks) can hold the ball.”
Panthers eating well
The Panthers had only one sack in the first meeting against New Orleans, a 27-22 victory on Sept. 27. Saints backup quarterback Luke McCown, subbing for an injured Drew Brees, got rid of the ball quickly and racked up 310 yards on 31-of-38 passing.
Addison is expected to miss Sunday’s game at New Orleans with a sprained right ankle. But he expects the rest of his defensive teammates to “eat,” a football term Addison jokingly said dates to the days of the “Egyptians – before they even started wearing a helmet with facemasks.”
Addison then added his definition of the concept.
“Let’s say you get a sack. That means, ‘Let’s go. I got me one. I want to eat some more. I want to go get me some more.’”
Even without one of the league’s premiere pass-rushers, the Panthers have been eating well of late.
NFL sacks leaders
Five teams (Detroit, Green Bay, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, St. Louis) tied with 30 sacks.