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Brian Burns responds to his coach's challenge

Brian Burns

CHARLOTTE — Panthers defensive end Brian Burns knew something more was going to be expected of him when he looked up on the screen in a team meeting last week and saw his name and face.

Jaycee Horn knew something more was coming when he saw Burns' demeanor this week in meetings and on the practice field, and even at the Ping-Pong table.

Burns responded in the best way to being challenged by interim coach Steve Wilks, getting a pair of sacks, forcing a fumble, totaling three QB hits and adding a tackle for loss and a pass deflection in a 23-10 win over the Broncos.

That came days after Wilks challenged his best players, the top picks and the guys they spent free agent money, by asking his best players to do more.

"He said, star players, be stars," Burns said. "Nobody took it in a disrespectful way. Everybody embraced that challenge, and I think they stepped up to the plate.

"He had a presentation, names and faces; he said these are the stars. Go be stars. And we were like, 'Yes sir.'"

Sunday's game also offered an extra layer of validation for Burns, as it got him to a career-high 10.0 sacks on the season. He's been chasing that milestone since he came into the league, stuck on 9.0 each of the last two years.

"Honestly, it's just been y'all talking about double digits, real talk," he joked to reporters, knowing full well it has been a threshold he wanted to reach.

But the timing — in the game and at this point of the season — meant something too. The Panthers have now won three straight home games to get to 4-8, keeping their faint NFC South division hopes alive (the division-leading Buccaneers lost Sunday to fall to 5-6). To have a chance, they had to have their best players doing more. That means Burns, their first-round pick in 2019. Wide receiver DJ Moore, their 2018 first-rounder, was on Wilks' list too, and he had four catches for 103 yards and a touchdown.

And those closest to Burns could sense that this kind of game was coming.

Horn, the 2021 first-rounder whose locker is next to Burns', is often in the middle of something with the pass-rusher. It's often a Ping-Pong match, or something loud.

"He's just a competitor," Horn said. "He brings that out of other people."

But last week, Horn said he could sense that Burns was on the verge.

"My favorite player," Horn said, laughing as he looked over his shoulder. "Turn on the tape. He makes my job easier. My guy can be running open, and I look at the quarterback and see him doing the Spiderman move. It's a blessing as a corner to have a pass-rusher like that.

"I told him all week this was going to be his game; I wanted four sacks out of him. I knew it was going to be on either the D-line or the corners to dominate this game. If we just held up our end of the bargain, he was going to be able to go out there and feast. And that's what he did."

The serious business always comes with a laugh for Burns — he joked about "trolling" Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson with a sack celebration that mimicked one of Wilson's old moves. But he's also serious about adding to his arsenal of pass-rush moves, which is why he often works with other players to learn more about the game.

"Today, everything was clicking for me. All my moves were on point," Burns said. "That's something I've been working on, since that's been my downfall since I've been in the league, been in college, since I've been playing D-end. Too small, not strong enough.

"Go look at that film. No disrespect to them guys, but look at that film, cats on their back a lot. Excuse my language, but this s---'s strong. That's something I've been working on."

Defensive tackle Derrick Brown laughed when that was mentioned, as he's often the butt of jokes about his size from the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Burns.

"He's still a little dude. Don't get it twisted," said Brown, who's 70 pounds heavier. "He's still little. He thinks he's strong. . . .

"But it's a testament to the way he works through the week and everything he does in the offseason."

Seeing what he's capable of inspires those around Burns, and that talent is part of the reason Wilks doesn't mind challenging him.

"Number one, he's just so athletic," Wilks said. "His speed off the edge, and his ability to work his hands, and then have such a great spin move. I think he puts a lot of pressure on tackles, to get guys to overset, and then he can turn speed into power, which he's done a good job of."

He showed that Sunday against the Broncos. So the challenge was accepted, and delivered upon.

"It just lets you know how highly he thinks of us, of the star players on this team," Burns said when asked about Wilks' expectations. "He wants us to play up to our potential. And I think guys definitely took that into consideration and went out there and balled. So hey, whatever he did, worked."

View photos from the field and in the locker room after Carolina's win over Denver on Sunday.

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