Improving pass rush has Panthers headed in right direction
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Carolina Panthers' pass rush has suddenly come alive – and so too have the defending NFC champions.
The Panthers have 12 sacks in their last two games leading to a pair of victories over the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams to improve to 3-5 on the season.
It remains to be seen whether the Panthers have changed the course of their season. They'll find out soon enough. Carolina hosts Kansas City (6-2) on Sunday, the start of an eight-game stretch that includes six games against teams with a winning record and three division leaders.
''We definitely feel like we still control our own destiny,'' said linebacker Thomas Davis, who had 10 tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble in Carolina's 13-10 win over the Rams . ''It's a really good feeling. You don't want to be at the mercy of anyone else. As long as we continue to string wins together and come away with the victory, that's all that matters.''
The Panthers have the league's third-best run defense, allowing just 77.5 yards per game and a league-low 3.3 yards per carry. But their pass defense was a huge issue the first six weeks of the season, contributing to a 1-5 start.
Carolina managed just 12 sacks in its first six games combined, but had eight against the Cardinals two weeks ago and four on Sunday.
The Panthers' 24 sacks are now third-most in the NFL.
Carolina's defensive ends, which have struggled to get to the quarterback all season, accounted for three of those sacks on Sunday, two by pass rush specialist Mario Addison.
Since the bye week, the Panthers have been rotating defensive ends more frequently trying to keep players fresh.
The strategy seems to be working.
''We do a ton of rotation,'' coach Ron Rivera said. ''We liked what we did. We thought the guys up front gave us the perfect push and surge we needed.''
Rivera also said it helps that the Panthers have gotten a lead in both games, allowing their defense to establish the pass rush.
Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly called it a group effort on defense, saying the defensive linemen are getting a better push and the team's secondary – which includes three rookie cornerbacks – are improving in coverage. Rookie cornerback James Bradberry was able to play after missing the last three games with a turf toe injury. And veteran nickel cornerback Leonard Johnson, who is 2-0 since being activated from injury list, has provided a boost on passing downs.
''Our guys up front have done an excellent job these last few weeks, and a lot of credit goes to those guys,'' Kuechly said after Sunday's win. ''A lot of the credit goes to the coaches for putting us in positions to be successful. Everybody tackles. It's fun to see those (rookie cornerbacks) really growing.''
Rams quarterback Case Keenum said the Panthers were good, but he made some mistakes that didn't help his team.
''There were a couple of times where I didn't move well enough in the pocket and it wasn't even pressure, I didn't have the pocket presence and didn't have a clear view on a few third-downs to pull the trigger,'' Rams quarterback Case Keenum said after the game.
While Carolina's defense has improved, big games remain on the schedule including one more trip through the NFC South.
Carolina was victimized early in the season by Atlanta's Matt Ryan and New Orleans' Drew Brees, who threw for a combined 968 yards and eight touchdowns. The Panthers host the Saints a week from Thursday in a rematch.
The Panthers believe these two wins can help change the course of the season after a 1-5 start.
AP NFL website: http://pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL