The first couple of post-Julius Peppers years were some lean ones for the Panthers’ defensive line.
The end of the John Fox era and the beginning of Ron Rivera’s tenure in Carolina featured front fours that were a mix of aging veterans, middling prospects and questionable draft picks.
After Peppers left for Chicago, most NFL players and observers would have been able to pick only one Panthers’ defensive lineman out of a lineup: defensive end Charles Johnson.
“To be 100 percent honest, the only person I’d really heard of is Charles,” said Panthers safety Mike Mitchell, who played four seasons in Oakland before signing with Carolina during the offseason. “He’s got a big name across the league. So even if you’re all the way out on the West Coast like I was, you know who he is.”
It won’t be confused with the Steel Curtain, the famous Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line of the 1970s, but the Panthers’ front four is beginning to gain recognition.
A breakout season by Greg Hardy, the continued productivity from Johnson, a good pick-up from Buffalo’s scrap heap and the drafting of two defensive tackles have transformed the Panthers’ defensive line from an area of weakness to one of strength.
“Nobody really gave us a chance. Nobody knew who we were,” Hardy said. “We took the approach where we’re not underdogs as far as the D-line. We’re the tempo-setters. I feel like coming out of last year and into this year, that’s our same approach and it’s helping us get a little name.
“Coaches are respecting us more, offensive lines are scheming for us. But we’re not going to let that get in our way. We’re not going to be distracted by it. We’re going to come out and prepare like we’re those same guys that nobody respects.”
Need to upgrade
Johnson, a third-round pick in 2007, became a starter in 2010 after Peppers left for Chicago. The other defensive line starters that season were Tyler Brayton and tackles Derek Landri and Nick Hayden, who was out of football last year but has resurfaced this season as a starter in Dallas.
When Rivera replaced Fox after the 2010 season, he saw a need to upgrade the defensive interior. The Panthers signed veteran nose tackle Ron Edwards to a 3-year contract and drafted a pair of tackles in the third round – Terrell McClain and Sione Fua.
But Edwards tore his triceps muscle during his first training camp practice with the Panthers in 2011, and ended up playing in just 11 games in two seasons before he was cut in a salary cap move this past offseason.
McClain and Fua were not the answers inside, either. McClain was cut after one season in Charlotte, while Fua re-signed with the Panthers last week after he was waived during the final roster cuts before Week 1.
But the Panthers found a keeper in defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who was part of Buffalo’s last cuts in 2012. Edwards was an undersized end in 3-4 schemes in Baltimore and Buffalo, but flourished as a penetrating tackle in the Panthers’ 4-3 alignment.
Edwards had a career-high six sacks last season, the most by a Carolina defensive tackle since Kris Jenkins had seven in 2002. Edwards’ emergence coincided with a big season by Hardy, whose development was sidetracked by a motorcycle wreck before the 2011 season.
Edwards’ inside pressure last season forced quarterbacks to the edge of the pocket, where Johnson and Hardy combined for 23.5 sacks. It was the second-highest sack total by a Panthers tandem in team history, behind Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon’s total of 28 in 1996.
It was the type of production the Panthers envisioned when they signed Johnson to a six-year, $76 million contract extension in 2011 and committed to playing Hardy, who was an athletic force at Ole Miss whose draft stock slipped (to the sixth round in 2010) because of injuries.
“We felt very good about who we had as pass-rushers. We felt great about Charles and very good about Greg. We felt we could get by with a big, stout nose and unfortunately Ron just wore out,” Rivera said. “Finding Dwan was huge for us. He’s really been a godsend. ... But now upgrading like we did in terms of young guys for the future, that’s pretty exciting.”
The young guys are rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the Panthers’ first- and second-round picks. Lotulelei was considered a top-3 pick before he was diagnosed with a heart condition at the NFL combine.
Though Lotulelei was later cleared, he slipped to the Panthers at No.14. The former All-American at Utah had three solo tackles and a quarterback pressure in the Week 1 loss to Seattle.
“We’re still growing. We’ve got (young) guys that are coming in and playing. They did a good thing the first game. But we’ve got a long way to go,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a long season ahead of us. But we’re jelling.”
Ask the Panthers’ defensive linemen about the key to the group’s success, and all of them mention the aggressive philosophy up front.
Some defensive lines are taught to read and react. But Hardy said the Panthers are told to “penetrate first, read keys second.”
Rivera developed the approach in Chicago when he was the Bears defensive coordinator under Lovie Smith. In football jargon, the technique is known as “downhill gap control.” Rivera says the front four plays the run on the way to the quarterback.
Panthers defensive line coach Eric Washington, who was an intern with the Bears under Rivera, is constantly reminding his players to get off the line quickly and be disruptive.
“I played on a 3-4 team where it wasn’t always like that, where you’re holding up blockers and letting other guys run free to make plays,” Edwards said. “(Linebacker) Luke (Kuechly) does a great job of doing (that). But we’re trying to penetrate and make plays, as well.”
Added Lotulelei: “Our main thing is getting off the ball, getting up field and getting penetration. So I think that helps us in the pass rush, just always firing off the ball and trying to get that penetration.”
The Panthers tied for ninth last year with 39 sacks, their highest total since a 41-sack season in 2006. They had two sacks against Seattle – including Johnson’s strip/sack of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who escaped the Panthers’ pressure several other times.
Edwards said the line’s level of professionalism increased in 2012 – and with it, the level of play.
“I’m going to go work every day and I guess if you’re not, you’re going to stand out,” he said. “There’s no letting up. Our level of play got lifted a lot last year. It’s great to have it up there so we have something to work for. Our standard’s real high.”
Though the Panthers don’t have a transcendent player who compares to Peppers, Hardy said that has fostered a selfless attitude among the defensive linemen.
“Nobody really cared who got the sacks. Nobody really cared who got the credit. It’s just getting after it as a unit,” Hardy said. “It was more important to be successful than to be individually (honored) or individually successful.”
‘These cats can really go’
Buffalo coach Doug Marrone, whose first Bills team faces the Panthers on Sunday, was the Saints’ offensive coordinator from 2006-2008. He remembers scheming against the Carolina defenses that featured Peppers and Jenkins, and believes this Panthers’ line matches up favorably.
“I think this group overall, all four of these cats can really go,” Marrone said. “And they have a good rotation. They don’t lose a lot when they start rotating people. I look at this front four as creating more challenges because of the production they’re getting out of all four of those positions.”
In addition to Fua and Short, the Panthers’ other reserve tackle is Colin Cole, a 6-2, 335-pounder who was out of football for two seasons before signing a one-year deal during the offseason.
Backup defensive ends Mario Addison and Frank Alexander also bring a pass-rushing presence when they spell Johnson and Hardy.
“The two defensive ends – and even their rotation in there – they really do a good job. You can see even people within their conference spend a lot of time making sure that they can’t take over a game,” Marrone said. “And inside they’re stout and they’re strong. I really think this is a very challenging front seven for us, one that’s probably under the radar. But I think people are starting to take notice because they do a heck of a job.”
Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who spent 12 seasons in Philadelphia coaching Eagles defenses that included a number of Pro Bowlers, believes the Panthers’ defensive line can be as good as any he’s been around.
“When you look at what we have up front and they have to stay together, they have to work at it,” McDermott said. “Now that people have seen how good they can be, how disruptive they can be ... they’ve got a chance to be pretty darn good.”
The nucleus could be together a while if the Panthers lock up Hardy. Hardy is eligible for free agency after the season, and his agent and the Panthers have been talking about a long-term deal.
Edwards is signed through 2014, Johnson is under contract through ’16, and Lotulelei and Short are just beginning their rookie deals.
“We’ve got a solid line. Why would you try to break it up? I want everybody to get paid,” said Johnson, laughing. “The league is not long, so you’ve got to live up to your hype.”
So Johnson wants to keep the band together?
“We’re just like a new band. We’re just starting off. We’re not anywhere near where we need to be yet,” he said. “So it’s a long (road) ahead of us, and Greg Hardy’s a big piece of the band. So we have to keep him to keep things going.”
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