Carolina Panthers

‘I’ve still got a lot of life in me’: Will Panthers DE Mario Addison adjust to 3-4?

Cam Newton long ago christened Carolina Panthers teammate Mario Addison “Super Mario,” owing to what the quarterback called the defensive end’s ability to become an “edge nightmare.”

But Addison wasn’t super in the second half of the 2018 season. Nor was the Panthers defense in general, nor the pass rush in particular.

Although Addison had a team-high nine sacks, only 1.5 of them came in the second half of the year, when Carolina crumbled. The Panthers went 1-7 over their final eight games and finished the season ranking a disappointing 27th in the NFL in sacks.

“We’ve got a standard, and we didn’t meet it last year,” Addison said after a recent Panthers practice. “It was sad that we had all the guys to do, it but we didn’t get the job done. But I can tell you this year — whew, we’ve got guys flying each and every way! And it’s going to be something special to watch.”

While Mario Addison has had at least nine sacks in each of the past three seasons, he had only 1.5 in the second half of 2018, when Carolina went 1-7 and lost out on what had seemed a likely playoff spot. Jeff Siner

Addison is headed into a contract year where, he said, he plans to “ball out.” Unless he gets an early contract extension, he will be 32 by the time he signs his next deal in 2020. And so for the affable end with a beard that rivals NBA star James Harden, 2019 is important for several reasons.

“I’ve still got a lot of life in me,” Addison promised.

Who does the 3-4 help?

Since Julius Peppers’ retirement, Addison ranks as the oldest edge rusher in the Panthers employ. Addison, who has at least tied for the team lead in sacks for each of the past three years, also is learning some new tricks in 2019 by necessity.

Carolina is switching to a hybrid scheme that sounds like it will put the team in a 3-4 defensive front at least as often as the formerly standard 4-3.

Who does that help?

“The smaller guys,” Addison said, speaking of his own position group and pointing to players like 2019 first-round draft pick Brian Burns (listed at 250 pounds) and others. “When we’re doing all the dropping (to cover pass routes) and stuff, you don’t want to be heavy like the typical end – 270-275 (pounds). That’s not a good fit… But when you got mobile guys like myself who can move around, that benefits all of us.”

Since the retirement of Julius Peppers (right) following the 2018 season, Mario Addison has become the elder statesmen of the defensive ends. At 31, he is two months older than new defensive end Bruce Irvin, who has been giving Addison some tips on how to play the 3-4 scheme effectively. Jeff Siner

Addison played at 262 pounds this past season. But he now weighs 255 due to better eating habits, he said, and plans to stay there in 2019. Even his occasional culinary splurge – a double cheeseburger at American Burger Company – is served without the bun at his request.

A 3-4 defense works in part by fooling the offensive linemen, who aren’t quite sure who is rushing and who is dropping in pass situations. In a 4-3, on the other hand, Addison said his job was to “rush-rush-rush-rush-rush.”

Addison’s interception goal

Addison said he has gotten “coached up” on the 3-4 scheme not just from his coaches, but also from new Panther defensive end Bruce Irvin.

“Bruce has played in the 3-4,” Addison said. “So all the drop stuff – I’m looking at him.”

Addison has always had dynamic athleticism. He clinched the Dallas win last season with a sack and had three more against Tampa Bay in another victory. The play I remember him most for, though, is in the Super Bowl following the 2015 season when he chased down a fleet Denver punt returner 60 yards downfield to save a touchdown.

Carolina Panthers defensive end Mario Addison had a career-high three sacks against Tampa Bay in November. Jeff Siner

Now, the Panthers want Addison to use his athleticism “in a different fashion,” said coach Ron Rivera. “I really think he’s adapted to that very well. He’s quick off the edge. He’s an explosive player, and I think this can add a little to his repertoire.”

Does that mean Addison will add an interception to his career totals? Since entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Troy in 2011, he’s never had a single one.

“This year, man,” he said jokingly, “I’m banking on about 4-5 interceptions. I’m going to take three back (for touchdowns).”

If he does that, he should splurge with a double cheeseburger. And this time, add the bun.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.