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For the Panthers’ Mario Addison, leading NFL in sacks as easy as ABC

Carolina Panthers defensive end Mario Addison sacks Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Sunday, one of his two sacks on the day.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Mario Addison sacks Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Sunday, one of his two sacks on the day. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Check the NFL sack leaders. The first name on the list is Carolina Panthers defensive end Mario Addison. No. 8 is Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

They each have two sacks, as do the six players, listed alphabetically, between them.

“For real?” Addison asks. “Oh, man, that’s good, that’s a good start.”

At 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, Addison is not big enough to play defensive end full time. Watt, for comparison, is 6-5 and 289 pounds. Big, mean offensive linemen would wear Addison down.

“When you have a lead in the fourth quarter, you want (Addison) as fresh as possible,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera says. “You saw the results.”

Consider Addison a specialist. Think of him like a baseball closer with a great fastball. Addison, too, deals in speed.

“How fast is Mario Addison?” asks Carolina defensive tackle Colin Cole, repeating the question. “Fast enough to cut on a dime and leave change.”

Says defensive end Kony Ealy: “He’s fast enough to make fast people look slow.”

“He’s pretty fast,” says rookie defensive end Rakim Cox. “He’s got pretty quick feet. We always argue about who’s faster. I’d like to race just to shut him up.”

You do not tell the man who is tied for the league lead in sacks to stop talking.

Addison is 28. He was not drafted from Troy (Ala.) State. He has played four seasons in the NFL, the past two with Carolina. He has improved every season he has been in the league. In 2014 he had 6.5 sacks and 18 quarterback pressures, and he sacked Russell Wilson in the divisional playoff loss to Seattle.

“In this league, you’ve got to grow,” Addison says. “If you don’t, you get stuck, and if you get stuck, you get cut. So every year I’ve got to find a way to improve my craft.”

The craft Addison grew up expecting to improve was running with a football. He ran the ball for his East Thomas Pee-Wee team in Birmingham, Ala.

Didn’t they make the big guys play on the line?

“I was just tall and fast,” Addison says.

At (Birmingham) Tarrant High, he played quarterback.

“They called me ‘6-4, 220,’ ” Addison says. “That was my nickname.”

You’re listed at 6-3. Have you shrunk?

“I was like 6-2, 215,” he says. “Six-four, 220 sounded better.”

You did not want to play receiver when Addison dropped back.

“I wasn’t patient,” he says. “I wasn’t patient at all. If you weren’t open, I was goooone. One time as quarterback I scored five touchdowns and all the two-point conversions. I scored every point in our game.”

Addison also wrestled, and while wrestling injured his thumb. He was unable to pass (if, you know, he were to throw one). So he became a pass rusher, switching positions but keeping his speed.

On his pro day as a defensive end at Troy, he says he ran the 40 in 4.52 and 4.53 seconds.

“But when I was getting ready for the league they decided I was a 4.6,” says Addison, hurt. “I was a 4.5.”

He uses his speed, and his running back’s feet, to get after the quarterback.

“I can run, stop, run, stop and redirect real fast,” Addison says. “That’s my advantage over most big guys I go against. I can take ‘em up the field and come back on ‘em really quick.”

As we talk, Cam Newton sits in front of his locker. I nod across the room toward the quarterback and tell Addison that if he hadn’t hurt his thumb he could be sitting over there.

“I’m not sure,” Addison says. “That’s a whole lot of pressure on a man. You know I can run the ball. That’s for sure.”

Why you don’t tell somebody?

“I did,” he says. “I said to (offensive coordinator) Mike Shula a couple of times, ‘Now, you know I can run the ball.’”

What did Shula say?

“He laughed,” Addison says. “He’ll say, ‘We’ll keep you in mind.’ 

Watt might line up at tight end when the Texans are near the goal line. You ought to lobby for that.

“Not tight end,” Addison says. “I’d love to be a running back at the goal line.”

We look around the locker room. Shula isn’t there.

“I’ll see what I can do, man,” Addison says. “I hope he listens.”

If not, the defensive end gig is off to a fine start. Addison almost had a third sack.

With 2:41 remaining in Carolina’s opener against Jacksonville, he broke into the Jaguars’ backfield as if he’d been invited. He popped quarterback Blake Bortles, and Bortles lost the ball. It could have been ruled a sack and a forced fumble.

Alas, linebacker Thomas Davis dove for the ball and caught it at the line of scrimmage, denying Addison a league-leading sack.

“I ain’t mad,” Addison says. “There’s no I in team. I’m glad my boy caught it, and hey, we got off the field. That’s all that matters.”          

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