CHARLOTTE - For the first time in his six-year NFL career, Panthers linebacker James Anderson has been the voice of the defense this season.
With usual defensive signal-caller Jon Beason out since the opener, Anderson has been the one who making sure the defense is lined up correctly, then controlling communication between the defensive line in front of him and the defensive backs behind him.
"Learning how to get guys lined up and trying to focus on what your job is, that's hard," head coach Ron Rivera.
Yet Anderson has made it look easy – time after time after time.
Even with the added responsibilities, Anderson has added to his tackle total in his second season as a full-time starter, so much so that he has a chance to break Beason's single-season record.
Beason recorded 169 tackles in 2009; Anderson has 156 heading into Sunday's finale at the New Orleans Saints.
"That's pretty sweet. I didn't know that," Anderson said. "I'm sure he'd like me to get it – give him something to shoot for."
The idea of leading the linebackers was a foreign one to Anderson entering the season. He was mostly a back-up his first four seasons in the NFL, getting to start only when injuries opened the door.
That changed last season, when Anderson started 15 games and responded by piling up 154 tackles – second on the team to Beason's 162.
Beason was supposed to lead the troops again this season, but he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 1 at Arizona. When fellow linebacker Thomas Davis was lost for the season a week later with his third major knee injury, Anderson became the last starter standing.
"He's taken on the role that Jon normally has, and that's a lot more pressure, a lot more eyes on him," fellow linebacker Dan Connor said. "He's done a great job. He's close to the tackle record – he's made a ton of plays. He's embraced it.
"Some people grow from it and get better, but for some people it's an added distraction. With James, it's helped him."
Rivera said it took Anderson some time to adjust to the added duties, but now Anderson says they're almost second nature to him. And without such a pivotal leadership role thrust upon him, Anderson might not have a shot at the tackle record in addition to the two interceptions, nine passes defensed and three fumble recoveries he has registered.
Anderson entered the season with one interception, eight passes defensed and four fumble recoveries in five NFL seasons.
"I wasn't reluctant to do it; I just never had to do it," Anderson said. "It makes your game a lot different, but it's helped me as a player. I've become better, and now I really enjoy doing it.
"Knowing where everybody has to be helps you to understand where you have to be. When I get all the guys lined up and make a check, I know what's going on around me, and I can play faster and get where I need to be."
Beason should reclaim his leadership role again next season, but now Anderson will be ready if called upon.
He's certainly answered the call this season.
"It's been great watching him grow," Rivera said. "He's assumed a leadership role in a very difficult situation – trying to learn the defensive scheme while helping the guys around him. He's also had to play out of position a couple of times, and he's been injured all year but has worked his way through.
"He continually shows up."