So much fuss has been made about this Carolina Panthers defense — about defensive schematics and alignments, stunts and blitzes, all the nuts and bolts and nitty-gritty of football mechanics.
But one maxim holds absolute:
“(Quarterbacks) can’t complete anything,” defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Addison said with a grin, “if we’re on his (butt) as soon as he gets the ball.”
True. The only issue is, through the first two games of this 2019 NFL season, the Panthers have largely struggled to do that.
In the team’s Week 1 loss to the Rams, Carolina mustered just one sack, and it came courtesy of cornerback James Bradberry. The results were slightly better in Week 2 against the Buccaneers, but again, only three quarterback takedowns — and none of them at critical times.
Consider that problem rectified, at least temporarily.
In the team’s 38-20 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the Panthers brought down Cardinals rookie starter Kyler Murray an incredible eight times. That ties for the second-most sacks by a Panthers defense in any game in franchise history, one off the all-time team record set back in 2013.
Or in the words of cornerback Donte Jackson: “Eight sacks? That’s ridiculous.”
It was. But perhaps even more encouraging was Carolina’s overall defensive effort. Between the sacks — five of which came in the fourth quarter — and the two interceptions by Jackson, the Panthers debuted their most complete defensive performance of this young season.
Now it’s a question of whether that performance was an anomaly against a woeful Cardinals team or a sign of more to come.
First, go back to those sacks. The Panthers weren’t taking down an older, immobile veteran. This was Kyler Murray, who won the Heisman last season at Oklahoma on the strength of 1,001 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns as a quarterback. Do those sorts of numbers remind you of any other Heisman-winning passer, by the way?
And Murray put that same mobility to good use early on, rushing for 28 yards on Arizona’s very first offensive drive. Considering he’d only had 17 rushing yards total through the Cardinals’ first two games, it was a bit disconcerting that he took off through a gap in the center of Carolina’s defense. Arizona scored on that drive to take its first lead of the game.
But from then on, the Panthers adjusted. They kept a fifth defensive back, Ross Cockrell, in the game on 100 percent of the defensive snaps, both to counter Arizona’s Air Raid offense and in case Murray scrambled. And with his receivers more tightly covered, that forced the rookie to stand in the pocket just a little longer.
A little too long, it turns out.
“We can’t do it without the backside. If they don’t have tight coverage, then the quarterback can lob it, throw it, whatever, just complete passes” Addison said. “This is team ball. There’s no one-man show. Everybody has to play for us to be successful.”
On the Cardinals’ second offensive possession, Murray continued dinking-and-dunking his way down the field, eventually facing a 2nd-and-9 from the Panthers’ 45-yard line. But the Panthers kept Cockrell in and paired him with James Bradberry to cut off Murray’s in-breaking option on the right side of the field. That disrupted Murray’s rhythm just enough for Addison, who was lined up almost at defensive tackle, to wreck the pocket and force Murray to fall down for a loss of 12 yards.
Those sacks continued throughout the game, but right as the third quarter ticked down, the pass rush broke through in a big way. Cockrell blitzed off the right side of the offensive line on 2nd-and-9, causing confusion and hurrying Murray’s throw.
Which sailed over Larry Fitzgerald’s head and straight to Jackson, who returned it 25 yards, practically into the red zone.
“I was looking to score,” Jackson said. “I was pointing, I was directing, I was trying to get to the end zone. I didn’t ... but I was able to get ‘em again.”
It’s true. Jackson’s leaping interception in the fourth quarter over ex-Panther Damiere Byrd all but sealed the victory for Carolina.
“It’s a huge step,” Rivera said of Jackson’s two picks. “I like to tell him, ‘As long as you play disciplined and keep your eyes in the right spot, you’ll get opportunities to make plays.’ And that’s what he did.”
Now, for as well as the defense played, it wasn’t perfect. Jackson missed a number of tackles for the second consecutive week, including one in open space in the thirdquarter that instead resulted in a David Johnson touchdown for Arizona. He also was beaten badly on a deep route that would have been a touchdown had Cardinals receiver Trent Sherfield not dropped it.
Dating back to last year, Jackson’s “dirty eyes” and aggressiveness going for takeaways have led to blown coverages, opponents scoring. So how do you square those big splashes against consistency on a play-by-play basis?
“That’s what I come to do,” Jackson said of his two takeaways. “That’s the thing that I preach to my teammates: that they can trust me out there, and they do.
“I’m a corner. I’ve got short-term memory loss ... I try to just forget about a play that doesn’t go my way and try to come back and make another play, and today I was able to do it.”
By the time the clock struck zero, Addison had three sacks. Rookie Christian Miller had two more. A trio of other defenders — linebacker Shaq Thompson, safety Eric Reid, and defensive end/outside linebacker Brian Burns — all got one, too.
The question now is whether the Panthers can replicate that effort against a superior Houston offense this week. The Texans aren’t world-beaters by any means, ranking in the middle of the pack in many offensive statistics. But their combination of Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins is as lethal as any in the NFL.
Realistically, no, the Panthers won’t have eight sacks next week. Rivera said that verbatim postgame. The Texans will study this tape and learn from what the Cardinals did wrong. And considering Watson has only thrown one interception this season, it’s entirely possible the Panthers don’t pick him off at all.
The only thing for certain is that as good as Kyle Allen was in relief of Cam Newton, it was the defense that put Carolina over the top. Allen will tell you so himself:
“When we needed them the most at the end of the game, they came up and got those stops,” Allen said. “That’s huge because they were on the field a lot tonight.
“All those sacks, the interceptions (were) huge. Won us the game.”