CHARLOTTE -- Time is something the Panthers know they are running out of when it comes to turning their season around.
It is also something the defense knows it can't afford to give Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield unless it wants the clock to strike midnight on the postseason.
"He’s an individual that has good pocket awareness, good quickness in the pocket, can extend plays. It’s challenging sometimes, actually, getting a guy like that on the ground," defensive coordinator Eric Washington said.
Generating pressure is an area the defense has uncharacteristically struggled with in 2018. And, thanks to an eventful Monday, the defensive line will have an extra spotlight as they look to get that done in Week 14.
Washington, who will again oversee the group he coached from 2011-17 following head coach Ron Rivera's staff shakeup, has said all season that Carolina has to be able to generate pressure with its front four.
Against the Buccaneers in Week 13, the defense showed improvement, earning the most sacks (4.0) in a game since Week 1 when Carolina posted six sacks against the Cowboys. But sacks aren't the only way to impact the quarterback, as Washington reiterated while pointing out how the Texans consistently disrupted Mayfield in their 29-13 win last week without recording a sack.
"The pressure they were able to get, the coverage and the pressure together, those things work together to force some turnovers that were timely, that gave their offense a chance to possess and score the football, so that’s what you want," he said.
Save for a well-timed effort by safety Johnathan Joseph on a pass intended for receiver Antonio Callaway, the other two of Mayfield's interceptions were caused in large part by edge rushers Jadaveon Clowney and J.J. Watt.
On first-and-10 midway through the second quarter, Mayfield dropped back and was pressured by Clowney, forcing him into a throw that linebacker Zach Cunningham impressively snagged out of the air with one hand.
Near the end of the first half, on third-and-10 on the Houston 38, Mayfield was flushed out of the pocket by Watt. As a result, Mayfield rolled to his right, looked downfield and heaved an errant pass to tight end David Njoku in the end zone that was picked off by safety Andre Hal.
Despite not bringing Mayfield down - which no defense has done in the past three weeks - the Texans forced him to throw a season-high three picks, providing a glimpse at what type of attack may work best against the young slinger.
The interesting thing about Mayfield, though, is that you just can't quite count him out. Although he finished with 46 passing yards in the first half against Houston, he still ended with a season-high 397 yards and a touchdown. His 119.6 QB rating over the last four weeks is the fourth highest in the NFL during that span.
Browns head coach Gregg Williams spoke to how Mayfield's growth as a starter has allowed him to make quick decisions and not put either himself or his offensive line in tough situations.
"The more you play as a quarterback, the better you are on protecting your offensive line on the rhythm of the ball coming out of your hand and then the understanding of how to change and check the protections to help out certain people. He's done a very good job with that," Williams said. "He's not forcing, trying to buy extra time because he's recognizing coverage faster and getting the ball out of his hand.”
That Cleveland offensive line, by the way, just happens to be one of the league's best. Pro Football Focus has had them ranked among the best O-line units all season.
"This is a pretty good group up front. Their interior guys are big, strong dudes. On the edges, definitely see some opportunities to win one-on-one matchups," said defensive end Wes Horton, who played a bit inside last week at Tampa Bay. "We have to work together. They are not giving up a whole lot of pressures. We have to win our individual matchups."
Washington will try to bring that out of the group that has to set the tone for the Panthers against Mayfield and the Browns.
"I’ve said from the beginning: Our system, our style of defense depends on our front four being able to generate pressure. Our blitzes, blitz patterns, (and) blitz schemes have to complement that. We want to be able to rush four, generate pressures, hit, hurries and sacks with our defensive line," Washington said. "We saw that improve last week, and it's going to be incredibly important going down the stretch because that's the way we’re built.
"That’s the way they’ve been trained, that’s the philosophy that we have as a defense. Those things are going to be important because it's what we believe in and it's the foundation of how we can execute and operate on defense."