Panthers sack attack starts with pressure up front
Greg Hardy views the Carolina Panthers' front four as an unstoppable force.
It's easy to understand the fourth-year defensive end's confidence given the way the Panthers finished the regular season.
Carolina had a franchise-record nine sacks in a season-ending 21-20 win Sunday at Atlanta. That victory secured for the Panthers the NFC South championship and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
They had an NFL-high 60 sacks this year, 40 coming from the defensive line.
The Panthers didn't accumulate those totals with a lot of blitzes or fancy schemes. Instead, it was mostly relying on the strength of the front four to get to the quarterback and cause disruption.
That's by design, according to third-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.
"You have to develop good fundamentals first before you try to pressure the quarterback through the blitz scheme," McDermott said. "If you try to do it the other way around, you lose your core foundation and you never really establish that foundation. So we have tried to lay a good foundation on guys coming off the football up front. That is what those guys have excelled at."
And everybody is getting in on the act. Nine defensive linemen have sacks for the Panthers.
Hardy led the way tying a franchise record with 15, while Charles Johnson added 11 from the other defensive end spot.
Veteran tackle Dwan Edwards provided the push inside with three sacks despite missing six games with a quad injury, and rookie tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short combined for 4 ½ sacks.
Young ends Wes Horton, Frank Alexander and Mario Addison also found their way to the quarterback.
"The effort up front has been phenomenal," McDermott said. "There is penetration inside and there are people coming off the edge, whether it's Greg or Charles or Wes or Mario or Frank Alexander. When you spread it around like that, they are tough to block, especially when they are coming off the ball as fast as they were" on Sunday.
Carolina's defense hasn't pressured the quarterback at the expense of stopping the run. The Panthers were second in the league in rushing defense.
Overall, the Panthers allowed the second-fewest total yards and points in the league, propelling McDermott into the national limelight as a potential head coaching candidate, including an interview with the Washington Redskins.
"Everybody is turning it up that extra gear," said Hardy, who earned NFC defensive player of the week twice this season and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time.
He said part of Carolina's success revolves around being accountable to teammates and coaches.
"Everybody wants to be here and wants to be a part of this family," Hardy said. "It's not about money or going to the Pro Bowl or getting a sack and celebrating by yourself. It's about getting with your team and embarrassing other people. (It's about) winning and doing what we want to do. We have all been here getting our butts kicked for three years."
The Panthers (12-4) are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They're off this weekend and will host an NFC divisional playoff game on Jan. 12.
Hardy has become the team's leader down the stretch with eight sacks in his final three games, including four against the Falcons.
"Something has clicked inside of him," coach Ron Rivera said.
Rivera said sometimes he cringes watching Hardy and Johnson on tape, noticing they'll rush to the inside, leaving the outside exposed to a swing screen pass or sweep.
But rarely have opponents capitalized, Rivera said.
"There is something that tells these guys — they have this innate ability — to know when it's OK to go inside," Rivera said. "Right now our veteran defensive linemen are playing like that they have that feel. They just know. The more they do it, you realize these guys have a little something going on right now."
Said Johnson: "The mentality is to get after the quarterback."
Or as Hardy said, "Just dominating."
Hardy boldly predicted a huge season back in the spring, telling reporters he'd have 50 sacks.
When told he fell 35 short of his goal, he smiled and said, "We've still got some games left. Who is going to stop me?"