CHARLOTTE – Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is proud of the intangibles the defense displayed as Carolina finished the year with four straight wins.
"(We played) with heart, intensity and passion," McDermott said. "That was evident toward the end of the year."
The defense also made tangible progress in 2012.
Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy both posted career-highs in sacks (12.5 for Johnson and 11 for Hardy) as they became just the third duo in franchise history to each reach double-digits in the same season.
Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly led the NFL in tackles with 163 stops, setting a new franchise record.
And the Panthers improved 18 spots in total defense from 2011.
"To go from 28th a year ago to 10th this year – it's a credit to the players and the staff for how hard they worked all season," McDermott said. "We're a work in progress. There's still a lot of room for improvement.
"We're a young team and we've gotten a lot of great contributions from some of the young players this year. A lot of guys got valuable experience."
The Panthers hadn't finished in the top 10 in total defense since 2009, and it took a sizeable midseason turnaround to accomplish the feat this year.
Through four games, the Panthers ranked 24th in total defense, surrendering 393.8 yards per game. In the final 12 contests, Carolina allowed just 312.8 yards per game.
The improvement coincided with Kuechly's move to middle linebacker in Week 5, and the defense rallied behind his lead. Additionally, fellow-linebacker Thomas Davis completed a full season for the first time since 2008 and was second on the team in tackles with 103.
Three-time Pro Bowler Jon Beason was placed on injured reserve prior to Week 5, but his impending return has McDermott "tremendously excited" about the future of the Panthers' linebackers.
"I've been around a lot of great teams, one Super Bowl team and multiple NFC Championship teams. And talent-wise on paper, I haven't seen a better linebacking corps than what could potentially be our starting three next year," McDermott said.
Where exactly those linebackers line up is yet to be determined, but the wealth of talent is a strong starting point for 2013.
"It'll be exciting," Kuechly said. "We have to keep growing. There's a lot for me to improve on. We just have to move forward and not take steps back. We have a bunch of talented guys and we can definitely do that."