Don’t tell me that sacks are overrated.
Although that is often spouted as conventional wisdom in the NFL, for the Carolina Panthers it’s simply not true — this season and throughout their history.
It’s no coincidence that the Panthers’ recent surge from 0-2 to 2-2 has been driven by two games in which a suddenly ferocious defense had eight sacks against Arizona and six against Houston. This sort of thing has always been a pattern for good Panthers teams, who have historically relied on a sack-happy defense to make the playoffs.
Of the eight Carolina teams that have made the postseason, seven ranked in the Top 10 in sacks. The eighth one — a fluky playoff team that actually went 7-8-1 in 2014 but still won the NFC South — was tied for 13th. The best Panthers teams have all ranked anywhere from first to seventh in total sacks, including a No. 1 NFL ranking in both 1996 and 2013.
The 2019 Panthers are tied with New England for No. 1 in the NFL with 18 sacks. That’s a positive sign for a Carolina team that in 2018 finished an uncharacteristic 27th in sacks — the worst ranking of the Ron Rivera era.
While turnovers caused and points allowed remain the two most important defensive stats, sacks help in those areas and also often give teams a booster shot of momentum. And here’s the best part about what the Panthers are doing: It appears to be sustainable, because their sacks largely aren’t due to gimmickry or massive doses of risky blitzes.
Of the team’s 14 sacks over the past two weeks, 10 came on standard four-man pass rushes.
Defensive end Mario Addison in particular has been winning his one-on-one battles. All five of Addison’s sacks over the past two weeks have been on basic four-man rushes where Addison simply beat his defender and/or was helped out by tight coverage that forced the quarterback to hold the ball a little longer.
Addison has been the Panthers’ clear pass-rushing standout. His 5.5 sacks through four games are more than double any other teammate. He ranks third in the NFL in total sacks.
But rookie edge rushers Brian Burns and Christian Miller have also been effective, with a combined 4.5 sacks and a couple of signature celebrations (Burns pretends to be Spider-Man, while Miller mimics reeling in a big fish).
Linebacker Shaq Thompson and safety Eric Reid have been two of the most effective blitzers. And Carolina has benefited from a little luck, too — edge rusher Bruce Irvin wasn’t called for an obvious facemask penalty on his first sack as a Panther on Sunday.
“Fourteen sacks in two games?!” exulted Irvin, who played on some of the best NFL defenses of the past decade with the Seattle Seahawks. “I ain’t never done that in Seattle. Those guys in Seattle, we were very talented. But the defense we’ve got here, we’re very capable of being just as good as those guys.”
In general, Carolina has made it hard to concentrate on any one rusher. The team’s 18 sacks have been split among 11 defenders. Oddly enough, inside linebacker Luke Kuechly is not among those 11.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera — who calls the defensive signals — has barely sent Kuechly on blitzes at all. Instead, Kuechly often fakes a blitz in the A-gap and then drops back into coverage. The linebacker patrols the middle of the field in Carolina’s traditional zone defense, which is designed not to give up the big play.
As a frustrated Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson described the Panthers’ defense after getting sacked six times in the Texans’ 16-10 loss to Carolina on Sunday: “What they’re doing is keeping everything in front. The linebackers are playing anything that crosses. Kuechly is playing in the middle. He stops everything that crosses the middle. He jumps everything there. And the safeties are charging.”
The secondary made several of the sacks possible by taking away Watson’s initial read, although cornerback James Bradberry deflected praise for this after the Houston game.
“I have to commend the front seven, man,” Bradberry said. “They really got after them. I wasn’t in coverage a long time most of the time.”
The Panthers handled Houston without two starters — defensive tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Donte Jackson. Now they face a 2-2 Jacksonville team Sunday at home that has some momentum behind rookie quarterback and burgeoning cult figure Gardner Minshew.
To get into third-and-long situations Sunday, the Panthers will first have to figure out how to stop running back Leonard Fournette (225 rushing yards last week). If they can do that, then Minshew will face a Carolina pass rush that has gotten younger and better in 2019.
The Panthers had only 35 sacks in 16 games in 2018. They are more than halfway there already and could threaten the team record (60) at this pace.
It was the 2013 team that once had 15 sacks in a two-game span, which was the only time the Panthers have eclipsed the 14 sacks posted over their last two games.
It’s early, and teams are going to adjust to the Panthers’ improved pass rush with more three-step drops and short passes. But so far, it looks like the sacks are back.
The Panthers are tied for No. 1 in the NFL in sacks. Eleven Panthers have combined for the team’s 18 sacks through four games. They are:
Player ... Sacks
Mario Addison ... 5.5
Brian Burns ... 2.5
Christian Miller ... 2.0
Shaq Thompson ... 2.0
Eric Reid ... 1.0
James Bradberry ... 1.0
Dontari Poe ... 1.0
Bruce Irvin ... 1.0
Vernon Butler ... 1.0
Javien Elliott ... 0.5
Jermaine Carter ... 0.5