In 2013, immediately after he selected defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with the first two draft picks he ever made, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman explained why.
“You look historically at the Super Bowl champions, and you show me one that’s had a bad defensive front,” Gettleman said. “Doesn’t happen – I’m telling you.”
It is less than three years later. Star and KK, as their teammates call them, form one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the NFL and also are a “hidden in plain sight” pivot point upon which Super Bowl 50 will turn.
Short is the one who has generated headlines this season, leading Carolina with 11 sacks (and two more in the postseason). Lotulelei is the steamrolling run-stopper and often the player who allows Short to do his thing by occupying two blockers.
“He does probably 90 percent of the dirty work,” Short said of Lotulelei. “It’s unbelievable what he does on the field. He’s a monster. He takes on two offensive linemen, opens it up for me and I just capitalize on what he does.”
Lotulelei (the No. 14 overall pick of 2013) and Short (No. 44 the same year) entered the NFL together as two of Gettleman’s “hog mollies” – the big guys that the GM loves to stack on his roster like cordwood.
“We came in the same draft class and we made a pact that we were going to try to be the best defensive tackles in the league,” Short said. “We’ve still got room to improve, but we’ve made a big jump from year 1 to year 3.”
So big, in fact, that eventually the Panthers will have a tough time re-signing both of these dominant young players. There is speculation that Carolina will have to sacrifice one of them to the open market – likely Lotulelei – because of the money needed to keep Short.
But that’s far in the future. No. 98 and No. 99 are still signed under their rookie contracts through the end of the 2016 season.
For now, they have a date with Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, who they watched as kids growing up.
“When Peyton Manning was with Indianapolis for the longest time,” Lotulelei said, “the Colts were my favorite team on ‘Madden’ because of him. Marvin Harrison, Dallas Clark, Peyton – I always played as the Colts.”
Now it’s for real. Gettleman’s Panthers are in the Super Bowl, and Short and Lotulelei are a big part of the reason.
Same position, different talents
Gettleman said the two Super Bowl-winning teams he was involved with for the New York Giants included sterling pass rushers such as Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora and re-emphasized the value of a strong defensive line.
“If you don’t get in second-and-long and third-and-long situations, you can’t rush the passer,” Gettleman said this week. “You can’t do it. You only get there if you stop the run.
And Star and KK are both quality three-down guys (who can play both the run and pass).”
Although they play the same position, Short and Lotulelei play it very differently.
“Star is just a powerful space-eater with good athletic movement,” Gettleman said. “KK – and I said this to the scouts in the draft room (in 2013) – was the most natural pass rusher of all the defensive tackles in that class. He had things he did naturally that you can’t coach.”
Lotulelei averages less than two tackles a game. But his space-eating also frees up linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to run free behind the defensive line. Short is not quite as vaunted of a run-stopper, but his pass rushing means he gets talked about more.
“KK is ascending, for sure,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “But Star does a lot of the dirty work.”
Again, there’s that “dirty work” phrase.
“It’s not just me doing the dirty work,” Lotulelei said. “We have a whole lot of other guys who do that, too.”
‘Like we’re the best’
All of those guys will be trying to get hold of Manning Sunday. Even in the complementary role he finds himself in now at age 39, Manning still gets rid of the ball very quickly. Short and Lotulelei just want to make the quarterback uncomfortable, hoping that the dirty work heralds the arrival of a very clean pair of rings.
I asked Short, a first-time Pro Bowler this season, if he thought the pair had yet reached their goal of becoming the best inside defensive line tandem in the league.
“We feel we’re one of the best,” Short said. “We’re one of the few left that is playing. We’re at a high level. We’re in the playoffs right now. And I’d say this – we’ve got to play like we’re the best.”