Carolina Panthers’ DT rotation: Can Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short play well together?

jjones@charlotteobserver.comJune 7, 2014 

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman called defensive tackle Kawann Short the best interior pass rusher of the 2013 draft, but one year later, Short is still coming off the bench.

Colin Cole, who will turn 34 later this month and is the oldest Panther, is less than two years removed from being out of football and starts in front of second-rounder Short.

When the Panthers drafted back-to-back defensive tackles in 2013 with Star Lotulelei in the first round and then Short – known to his teammates as KK – the thought was that eventually the duo would be the interior of Carolina’s defensive line for years to come.

But Panthers coach Ron Rivera employs a rotational system for his defensive tackles comprised of Short, Lotulelei, Cole and Dwan Edwards. The system worked well last year, when the Panthers led the NFL in sacks.

“I really don’t think it’ll ever happen,” Rivera said of the rotation. “But whether (Lotulelei and Short) become the two primary starters or not? That’ll be up to KK.”

The rotation gives the Panthers options. Lotulelei brings power, Cole eats up space and Short can find his way into the backfield on passing downs.

Of the three, only Lotulelei is a true three-down tackle. Cole’s run-stuffing abilities make him a desirable first- and second-down option, and Short’s 25 quarterback pressures as a rookie prove him to be a force on third down.

But through two weeks of organized team activities, Cole still holds down the first-team reps beside Lotulelei as Short bides his time.

“Everybody wants to battle for that first spot, but I know my role on this team and I know what I need to do to maintain it,” Short said. “We don’t base it off who starts and who doesn’t. We base it on who’s hot and how we all get in there. All the D tackles have been hot, and we’re trying to keep that rotation hot and fresh.”

A look at the keys to the Panthers’ rotation system:

Short: ‘We’re very close’

Of all the statistics Short could have focused on this offseason, one stands out: He had 25 quarterback pressures last year but only 1 1/2 sacks. He says he could have been in the five-plus range had he just closed a small gap.

“When the quarterback gets it off right before you touch him, that’s pretty much 6 inches,” Short said. “You want him, but you can’t hit him after he throws the ball. You want that sack, or that sack-fumble, because it helps the team, and one thing we focus on is 6 inches.

“We’re very close, now we’re trying to get there now.”

The Panthers drafted Short out of Purdue with the 44th overall selection in the 2013 draft. Recently, Rivera bluntly said Short didn’t start well.

According to football analytics site Pro Football Focus, Short had positive grades in four of his first nine games. In Week 8 against Tampa Bay, Short had a -1.1 grade after center Ted Larsen controlled Short for most of his 39 snaps.

Rivera compared Short’s situation to his own when the Bears drafted him as a second-round linebacker in 1984 after drafting linebacker Wilbur Marshall in the first round.

“In all honesty, you kind of look at it like, OK, Star’s the guy. You kind of take a step back and slow down, and you almost feel safe,” Rivera said. “And I think that’s how he felt.

“I’m not saying this is what happened, but there was a sense he was comfortable. And we kept pushing him and got on him, and then he realized, hey, I have an opportunity. And he picked it up.”

Short was one of the league’s top defensive tackles from Week 11 until the end of the season. In every game he was graded positively by PFF, including tying a season high with a 3.5 grade in the Panthers’ playoff loss to San Francisco.

In the regular-season finale against Atlanta, Short had two quarterback hurries and one hit but no sacks. He’s still upset he didn’t get two sacks in that game, two plays Gettleman refers to as “almosts.”

Gettleman is confident Short will convert them into sacks in 2014.

“He really came on there at the end of the year,” Gettleman said. “So who starts – it’s almost like, who finishes? And KK’s definitely a guy we’re counting on.”

Cole: Space eater

Colin Cole knows his role.

A starter in 14 of Carolina’s 17 games last year, Cole is a space eater. His advanced stats put him 62nd out of 70 defensive tackles in the league, but his job wasn’t to attack the quarterback.

“Space eaters allow the middle linebacker (Luke Kuechly) to roam,” Rivera said.

Said Cole: “My role is to be what I was last year. I was a big part of us being the second-ranked defense in the league.”

Cole played less than one-third of the Panthers’ defensive snaps last season yet remains the team’s starting nose tackle because of his size (325 pounds) and instincts.

The rotation the Panthers believe in means the nine-year veteran lines up against the opponent’s center on first and second down to stop the run, something Short is still learning to do.

“Colin reads scheme very well, and obviously he has the power to anchor,” Gettleman said. “He can create a new line of scrimmage. Plus he moves well for a guy his size. If it’s a first or second down drop-back pass, he can give you the push you need so the pocket’s not going to be necessarily clean.”

It’s unlikely Cole would even be with the Panthers had he not cold-called the team in the spring of 2013. Cole was a starter in Seattle before a serious ankle injury required four surgeries, and he was released before the 2011 season. He spent two years looking for work before the Panthers picked up the phone.

Gettleman referred to Cole as doing the team “a real solid” in 2013 as Dwan Edwards dealt with a hamstring injury. Cole started in Week 3’s win against the Giants and still hasn’t given up his starting spot.

Cole recently joked with Gettleman that he wants to play five more years, and Gettleman said he’d be happy to have him. But Cole understands the reality of his long-term situation in Carolina.

“I can’t look over my shoulder,” Cole said. “Ultimately this team went out and drafted two guys they plan on being the future of the franchise with Star and KK. In my opinion, I’m on borrowed time.”

Lotulelei: Out of his shell

At Wednesday’s practice, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert playfully crept into the defensive huddle before a play.

Last year, Rivera doubts Lotulelei would have done anything. But this week, he and Short forced the running backs out of the huddle and gave a slight chase to them.

“That’s great to see because it’s so uncharacteristic of him,” Rivera said.

Lotulelei has come out of his shell this year. A 6-foot-2, 320-pound tackle, Lotulelei is naturally quiet but he’s admittedly grown more comfortable around his teammates.

He trimmed his hair after his teammates picked on him last season, and the consensus among the team is he looks better. Sometimes he’ll tell a joke that will force Cole to double over.

While it’s taken some time for Lotulelei to be comfortable in the locker room, his impact on the field his rookie season was immediate.

Lotulelei was a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate through the first half of the season. His run-stopping abilities helped the Panthers allow 79.1 rushing yards per game, the second-fewest in the NFL after Week 9.

But like Short, Lotulelei hit a rookie wall, Rivera said. And though he finished the season strong, his pass rushing didn’t develop as quickly as Lotulelei hoped.

“It definitely has been (a work-in-progress),” Lotulelei said of pass rushing. “It’s going to take a while. I’ve got the rest of OTAs, minicamp and camp, so I’ve got a long way to go but I’m working on it.”

Still, Lotulelei is powerful, and though he’s never tried to max out on bench press, he said he benches around 435 pounds. It’s his power, athleticism and intelligence that Gettleman loves.

“What he does in the run game, he’s a dominant run-game defender,” Gettleman said. “It’s not that he can’t rush the passer – that’ll come. It’s that you have Dwan Edwards and KK on the sideline and you’re trying to rotate around.”

It’s that rotation the Panthers believe will keep the interior of their line fresh in late-game situations.

“You can’t have too many defensive linemen,” Gettleman said.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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