While Cam Newton and Co. receive the credit for the Carolina Panthers’ turnaround, it’s the play of a stifling defense that has them sitting above .500 for the first time in five years entering Week 9.
A unit that leads the league in total points allowed (96) and ranks third overall in yards per game, knows how to get after the quarterback. Carolina’s defense has yet to allow an offensive touchdown in the first half of a game this season.
“I think we have to take pride in something like that each and every week especially going into these division games,” defensive tackle Star Lotulelei told FOXSports.com in a telephone interview. “I think that’s something that every defense needs to take pride in. Not only on the first half, but scoring in general, you don’t want anyone scoring on you especially at home. So, that is something we take pride in.”
The Panthers are playing with a new mindset and a different type of confidence.
Getting off to a strong start in any game is important. The Panthers don’t rest on their laurels, though. After suffering losses in the first two weeks, which stemmed from subpar play in the second half, the defense has been able to put games away as it hasn’t in the past.
Although Lotulelei is a rookie, he understands the importance of putting good teams away.
“I think we’ve just been able to focus on finishing every game,” the 14th overall pick in the draft from Utah said. “Coach [Ron] Rivera, that’s one of the most important things that he’s stressed to us. We have to finish. We start games real strong and it’s getting to the point where we’re able to finish games off now.”
Everyone has bought in to the defensive-minded philosophies. Leaders such as linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly establish their presence on the field, but others who don’t get enough recognition have been integral in the team’s turnaround.
When asked who the hardest working players were in the team facility, Lotulelei said that linebackers Jordan Senn and rookie A.J. Klein were the guys who are the first in and last to leave.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who was the fired in Philadelphia in 2011, has also done a good job of schematically playing to the defense’s strengths. While there are some holes in the secondary, McDermott makes up for it employing linebackers who can cover in space.
“Coach McDermott, he’s great,” Lotulelei said. “He’s a real players’ coach but at the same time, when it’s time to get to work, he’ll let us know. He cares a lot about his players and he’s really passionate about what he does. He gets us fired up every week and it’s a privilege to play for him.”
People forget that Rivera made his living coordinating league-leading defenses in Chicago and San Diego prior to getting the head coaching gig in 2011. It was only a matter of time before this team matched his identity.
As fun as it is to watch offense’s output of points at a team record pace, it’s refreshing to see that quality defense can still win.
“I think we have the potential to be the best defense in the NFL,” Lotulelei said. “Our leaders on defense, we don’t like to use the word potential, but if we clean up a few things here and there in each position group, we definitely could be that No. 1 defense in the NFL.”