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Carolina Panthers

Can Thieves Ave. steal the show again?


CHARLOTTE – Burglars Boulevard? Larceny Lane? Petty Crime Circle?

Nope, it's still Thieves Ave. according to the man who coined the phrase first used to describe the Panthers' ball-hawking secondary in 2015.

"It's not about the year; it's about a philosophy, about a mentality, a way of life, a tradition if you will," defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. "It carries on from one year to the next. The next group of players adapt it, and they carry the torch."

The secondary's street was a safe one to play on for much of last season, when Carolina didn't get an interception from a cornerback until Week 14. But beginning with an impressive victory that week over the Vikings in which Carolina's corners picked off a pair of passes, the secondary has accounted for 12 of the Panthers' 14 interceptions in the games since.

Just one team, the Chiefs, have more interceptions over that 12-week period, and they have just one more with one more game played.

"We got this thing cooking," rookie Donte Jackson said after the secondary picked off two passes in Sunday's victory over the Ravens. "And it's starting to be something really, really special."

It certainly was special in 2015, when a cornerback that shares some qualities with Jackson was the face of Thieves Ave. Josh Norman actually had only four of the Panthers' league-leading 24 interceptions that year – but opposing teams stayed away from him and safety Kurt Coleman cleaned up with a team-high seven.

Norman was front and center when Washington, at the time the Panthers' defensive line coach, brought Thieves Ave. to life. It began on the practice field, when the various position groups rotated through a circuit of stations manned by position coaches.

"The defensive backs came to me, and when they were getting ready to rotate away from me, I said, 'Thieves on three!' Josh Norman loved it," said Washington, now in his first season as defensive coordinator. "The next time we were in a circuit situation, I didn't say it, and he about lost his mind. So I made sure that I said it from that point on.

"It really was a way of identifying what we wanted to do."

The defense has never lost that identity, even if it lost its touch for forcing turnovers for a while. The Panthers tied for fourth with 17 picks in 2016, but in 2017 they totaled just 10, good for 24th in the league. The ranking would have been lower if not for five interceptions over the final four games of the season – all by defensive backs.

Among other things, Washington credited veteran safety Mike Adams - who has three of Carolina's nine picks so this year – for being a pacesetter in his second season with the Panthers. Adams recorded his 30th career interception against the Ravens, but Adams doesn't get all the credit for that, either.

"Nothing we do defensively exists in a vacuum," Washington said. "You saw Mike Adams get his 30th interception yesterday. Well, the pressure was where it needed to be.

"Mike Adams being in our system a second year is big, but also James Bradberry's maturation and the dynamic talent of Donte Jackson and having Eric Reid and Rashaan Gaulden and the other players. And the coaches have done a very nice job – Richard (Rodgers) and Jeff (Imamura) – of informing the players and working with them on the details of what we need to do."

Next up for Thieves Ave. is a Tampa team whose quarterback carousel of Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick has combined to toss a league-high 15 interceptions. The Panthers, with nine interceptions, currently rank eighth in the league and need just one more to match last year's total.

"At the very beginning you try to establish yourself in terms of what you want to be about in terms of priorities," Washington said. "When you have talented players like we have that embrace that, they follow through with the message and they work at it every single day."