CHARLOTTE — Carolina Panthers rookie Star Lotulelei knew, nearly from the outset of his arrival last season, that the front seven on defense was going to be as good as any team’s in the NFL.
However, it wasn’t until the third game of the season that the defensive tackle was able to fully grasp just how good this defense was, and could be.
The Panthers destroyed Eli Manning and the New York Giants 38-0, while sacking the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback seven times and intercepting him twice. It was a beating of epic proportions that was fueled by the outstanding play of the defense.
"I had a feeling we were really good when I first got here, but I think the game that kind of set it off was the New York Giants game, when our D-line just kind of went off," Lotulelei said. "We had a real good game that game. I think from that week on, we knew where we could go, and what was expected of us each and every week."
What transpired from there, was a defense that allowed just 15.1 points per game — second fewest in the NFL.
It was the front seven (four linemen and three linebackers) that made Carolina’s defense so special and dominant.
With players like star defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, along with the stellar interior play of Lotulelei and Dwan Edwards anchoring the middle of the defensive line, teams found it hard to run the ball, let alone set up for passes that took time to develop.
In the rare moments when a running back was able to break through to the second level while rushing the ball, there waiting for him were linebackers Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and Chase Blackburn.
For his efforts, Kuechly was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year, which came just one year after being named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The scary part — Lotulelei believes last season was just the beginning of what damage this defense will inflict on opposing teams.
"I think we’ll be even better," he said. "A lot of guys from last year are just going to get a lot better. We had Greg Hardy, a Pro Bowler, and Charles is always going to be a great player, each and every year. He’s proven it. Everybody is working hard, everybody is anxious and everybody is excited."
Lotulelei makes a strong argument, considering as a first-year player he hit the proverbial "rookie wall" late in the season. At the midway point last season, many experts felt he’d win Defensive Rookie of the Year, like Kuechly did the previous year. While that didn’t happen, he still finished with three sacks, 34 tackles and 14 assists, and was the exact anchor the Panthers have so desperately looked for at defensive tackle for the previous five seasons.
Lotulelei said this offseason, and OTAs, were so much better for him this time around because he could just concentrate on football, as opposed to having to get acclimated with a new city and teammates.
"The biggest difference is definitely the comfort level, and not only on the football field, but in the classroom too, with my teammates and my group with the defensive line," he said. "You can just really feel the comfort level everybody has this year. Everybody is anxious and ready to go."
If there is one downside to the Carolina defense, it’s the secondary. Most of the key players from last year’s secondary, which was average at best, are gone.
There are literally new players at every position in the secondary, and if they’re not new to the team, they’re either new to starting, or new to their position.
Lotulelei says there’s no need to worry, and that the front seven feels absolutely zero pressure to increase its play to help out the defensive backs.
"Not at all," he said. "We definitely lost some good guys, but the guys that we’ve got this season, they’re really stepping up and we’re seeing a lot of guys making a lot of plays on the ball. We’re excited. We have all the faith in the world in our DBs and they’re going to come out and show out."