In the past two games, the Carolina Panthers have outscored opponents 40-0 in the first half.
The two teams are different – the NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons in Week 14 and the 4-10 San Diego Chargers on Sunday – but there is a common thread: Carolina’s heightened defensive intensity.
“That was a big thing for us all week – to come out and play intense-style football from the very start, and I thought we did that,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said of Sunday’s 31-7 victory against the Chargers. “Getting off the field the first series and then continuing to keep the pressure on throughout the game was important to us.”
The Panthers’ aggressiveness on the first series produced a fumble by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, recovered by Carolina. The momentum carried throughout the first half, with the Panthers holding San Diego to five first downs and 66 yards on offense.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the staff still pushed the defense at halftime.
“I think going in at halftime and talking to the defensive line and telling Charles Johnson that one sack’s not enough, and then him coming out and doing it,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “Telling them, ‘Hey, I want the ball. Bring me the ball.’ And the next thing you know, they get the sack-fumble and they come over and give me the football. So there is a little bit of (swagger).
“That bodes well as far as developing confidence.”
Johnson and Hardy have combined for 21.5 sacks, the first time since 2002 that two Panthers have had at least 10 sacks in a season. (Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers finished with 22 that season.)
The disruption of Rivers was fueled by the early lead. Carolina led 31-0 before San Diego scored a late touchdown, and turned a sparse San Diego crowd against the home team.
“The good thing that we’ve been doing is getting off to fast starts lately, and that’s something we’ve been stressing,” offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. “Anytime you do that you can help when you’re on the road to take the crowd out of it.”
GODFREY’S BACK: In his first game at free safety since 2009, Charles Godfrey anchored the defensive backfield.
Godfrey, the team’s starting strong safety for most of the season, injured his back and sat out the Atlanta game. Rivera slid Godfrey to free safety on Sunday to exploit his athleticism. D.J. Campbell played strong safety.
“Moving positions in a week is a challenge, and he took the challenge head-on and had great communication in the secondary,” McDermott said. “Some of those sacks and pressures were not just due to the great pressure but they had tight coverage.”
The Panthers allowed 121 passing yards, and just one Rivers pass went for more than 9 yards.
BYERS TIME: When starting center Geoff Hangartner didn’t make the trip to San Diego, reserve Jeff Byers slid over and impressed his offensive coordinator.
Byers had seen time at right guard earlier in the season before Carolina settled on Garry Williams. But when Hangartner went down with a sprained foot last week, Byers got the call.
He was part of a front line that allowed quarterback Cam Newton to be sacked just twice.
“He did a good job with the calls and with the center that’s the key, getting us directed the right way,” Chudzinski said. “He’s a guy who’s always going to battle and give you everything he has.
INJURY UPDATE: Rivera had not met with trainers before talking with the media Monday, but he said the only real injury concern was backup guard Zack Williams, who injured his knee before the game Sunday and did not play. Newton was also injured during the game after tweaking his ankle and suffering a cut on his throwing hand, but Rivera expressed no concerns about the quarterback’s health.