Where’s the pass rush going to come from?
That was one of the chief questions for the Carolina Panthers in 2018 — never satisfactorily answered in a season in which the team finished an uncharacteristic 27th in the NFL in sacks.
And entering the second game of the 2019 NFL season, you still must ask the question. The Panthers had only one sack in their 30-27 loss to the L.A. Rams on Sunday, and that one came from cornerback James Bradberry after a Jared Goff scramble.
That needs to change Thursday night against Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, who is prone to holding the ball and trying to extend plays.
The Panthers didn’t get a single sack from their vaunted — and expensive — defensive line against the Rams, although defensive tackle Kawann Short and rookie edge rusher Brian Burns netted two quarterback hurries apiece.
“I was very close a lot of times,” said Burns, who graded himself a ‘C-plus’ in his first NFL game. “I was a couple of steps — a couple of inches, actually — from a strip-sack. Yeah, those hurt. But it will come.”
The Panthers have been one of the NFL’s best teams sacking the quarterback under coach Ron Rivera. From 2012 (when the Panthers drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly to improve the entire defense in one fell swoop) until now, the Panthers rank No. 1 in total sacks as a team with 316. The L.A. Rams are second. Denver is third.
In the same stretch, the Panthers are No. 1 in total sacks by defensive linemen with 242.5 (Minnesota is second).
With players like Short, Julius Peppers, Mario Addison and Charles Johnson crashing toward the quarterback in recent years, the Panthers have often been able to rush only four players and generate a substantial rush without blitzing.
But that changed in 2018, as Peppers finally looked his age and no one besides Addison could get to the quarterback with any regularity. Burns was brought in to shore up the sack total. So was edge rusher Bruce Irvin — who seems likely to miss his second straight game Thursday with a hamstring injury — and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who faces his old team Thursday.
“I know all your escape moves, Jameis,” McCoy, who played for Tampa for nine years, laughingly warned Winston in an interview Tuesday.
The Panthers sacked Winston four times in the teams’ most recent meeting last December -- but the Buccaneers won the game anyway, 24-17.
Sunday, the Rams did to Carolina what New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees often does — getting the ball out to receivers on three-step drops and neatly nullifying the Carolina pass rush without having to throw the ball downfield much on slower-developing plays.
“We were very close,” Rivera said when asked about the defensive line’s zero-sack total Sunday. “See, one of the other things, too, is that they played sideways. They didn’t have an explosive throw really (Goff’s longest completion was 24 yards). They played sideways. And when a team plays sideways, that ball is coming out before you get a chance to really get to ‘em.”
Winston, like Cam Newton, is confident in his scrambling ability and will sometimes hold the ball longer with the idea he can hit on the big play. That leads to some uneven performances — he can throw four touchdown passes or four interceptions, depending on the week.
In Tampa Bay’s 31-17 loss to San Francisco on Sunday, Winston had one of his poorer games. Winston was sacked three times, but that was not the worst of it. He threw three interceptions, and two of those were returned for touchdowns as the 49ers’ defense scored 14 points by itself. Winston also fumbled twice, although Tampa Bay recovered both.
Burns, who is one of the few Panthers’ defensive linemen with the speed to possibly catch Winston in the open field, got a mixed review from Rivera after his first game.
“He did some really good things,” Rivera said. “He gave us some extra push off the edge. He read a play very nicely and made a nice tackle for loss. Little undisciplined a couple of times in his rush lanes; little undisciplined a couple of times in his run-gap responsibilities.”
That’s going to happen with rookies, but the Panthers will take an occasional botched run lane if Burns and the other rushers can produce a few sacks. Against Winston — and then again vs. rookie Kyler Murray the following week at Arizona — the chances should be there.