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Defense hopes to get a chance to run it back

Donte Jackson

CHARLOTTE — Jaycee Horn stared across the field, watching as another team celebrated on his home field. Tampa Bay Buccaneers players jumped and danced and threw their fists in the air, jubilation at clinching the NFC South title and subsequently, a playoff spot.

Horn wasn't thinking about the fact the Carolina Panthers defense had just held this playoff team to nine points and 228 total yards. He wasn't thinking about his three passes defended and the records broken from his teammates. He was thinking about the division rival, taking the next step in a season; one he and his team weren't getting to be a part of this year.

"I seen those guys over there dancing, getting ready to go to the playoffs," Horn said. "And that's what I was thinking about. I wasn't thinking about the statistics or anything. I was thinking I want a chance to get to that game.

"It's just me being a competitor, wanting to be one of those playoff teams and having a shot at winning that ring. I feel like every guy in this locker room had some bit of anger in them."

For this Panthers defense, the silver lining, or perhaps salt in the wound, is they feel they have the talent and personnel to be a playoff team.

"One hundred percent," cornerback Donte Jackson said, when asked if this is a playoff defense.

And if defense wins championships, with a modicum of assistance from an offense that has been shut out the past eight quarters, this defense should, in theory, be able to carry a team far.

"Obviously, some things that we want to clean up, want to get better on," Jackson continued, "but for the most part, like I said we have a lot of great things that we can take to the offseason with us."

So, what, or rather who, are those things?

Pillars of this defense, guys like Derrick Brown, Shaq Thompson, and the majority of the secondary (only nickel Troy Hill is a free agent -- see the complete list here), are set to return. Outside linebacker Brian Burns will become an unrestricted free agent, but the option for the franchise tag is there. Otherwise, Frankie Luvuis the main defensive piece to be addressed,

Brian Burns, Derrick Brown

Burns, for his part, has stated his wish to remain in Charlotte.

"I want to. We'll see what happens," Burns said.

Furthermore, he and those leading voices in the locker room, have made a plea to keep as much of the unit together as possible.

"Especially with the adversity that we faced this season," Burns said. "The core group of guys that is on this defense, you just can't separate it. We have been together for a while. The camaraderie is amazing. I feel like there is so much more we can tap into as a defense."

That camaraderie takes times to establish, through camps and long practices and, according to Horn, the losses. Of that, the Panthers have not been short this season. Each punch has pushed the defense closer to together though, said Horn.

"It's really the losses. We struggled this year a lot. We had to pick each other up because there's times when fans downing us, the coaches on us tough and all you could do is look to your left and to your right and know you got your brother. So that's what make us grow so close and make us run it back."

Derrick Brown

And in a league that constantly asks, "what have you done for me lately," the patience that goes into building a cohesive team can get lost. But instead of breaking this defense apart and selling it for parts, they're asking for trust from "upstairs" to prove this production is not only sustainable but can be winning.

"It has been an up and down year for us but these guys, the defensive room, and this team come in every single day to work," Brown said. "No matter what the situation is guys still come in here, show up and go to work. We didn't have anybody quit on this team and nobody sat out, nobody tried to sit out the last game, so it's one of those things where there's a lot of promising things."

Added Burns: "to that point that we have (camaraderie)…it's hard to build that. When you switch around a lot of people and you have to teach them the way things are, but when guys already know what to do and what to expect, makes it easy."

The Panthers defense finished their season fourth in the league in total defense. The passing defense in particular is second overall. Those are numbers that should speak for themselves according to Jackson.

"I'm sure everybody knows this is a passing league, this is a league that loves to air raid," the veteran corner said. "A lot of good quarterbacks in this league. So when you have a group of guys that's determined on stopping the passing game and determined on covering their butts off, I think that it's just kind of a no brainer, you know what I'm saying?"

But, as Jackson reminds everyone at the conclusion of his own plea, "it's a business."

When those making the business decisions turn on the tape, they'll see a performance from Sunday that featured not only individual flashes, but unified defense across the board. Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield threw for his lowest amount of passing yards all season with 137 though the air. He registered his second lowest passer rating of the season, finishing with a 72 rating, took three sacks and threw no touchdowns. One of those sacks came courtesy of Brown.

Brown also set a new NFL single season record on Sunday, registering seven tackles to bring his season total to 103, the most ever for a defensive lineman.

Technically, Brown broke the record twice. Once, when he combined with Shy Tuttle on a tackle of Rachaad White midway through the second quarter.

"They announced it and I was like 'Oh!' because I thought Shy got that tackle," Brown laughingly admitted. "So, I was confused but it was a great moment."

Shortly after, however, the stat keeper removed Brown's assist and awarded a solo tackle to Tuttle. By the time that clerical error had been addressed though, Brown had added another for good measure.

The official record breaker was a tackle also on White, a solo wrap up for Brown, writing his name in the record books. He'd break and reset the record four times over by games end, finishing with seven tackles versus the Buccaneers and 103 on the season. It bypassed the previous record by five tackles.

It was hard to even hear Brown speak on the monumental marker after the game, on account of his teammates yelling in stereo around the locker room. Shouts of "tell 'em DB," and "Pro-Bowl snub" drowning out the humble voice of Brown on his accomplishment.

"I really went out there today and tried not to keep count because I was thinking about it in the middle of the week, and it has been a distraction to me," Brown said. "So I was just like screw it and deal with it when it gets here.

Jaycee Horn

Horn, the Panthers first round pick in 2021, has played in a mere seven games this season, with various injuries. His return on Sunday was a reminder to fans and a message to any new coach that walks in the door, he can be a building block for this defense. The third-year corner accumulated five tackles on Sunday, but it was his three passes defended that define the kind of player he is.

"On the outside, me and Jaycee were able to hit our stride," Jackson said. "Was happy to get him back. He's gonna be a dominant player in this league for a long time."

Burns admitted that at the onset of the season, his mind wasn't where it needed to be, based on what was happening around him. Thompson broke his leg in Week 2. Horn pulled a hamstring in Week 1 that kept him on Injured Reserve for the bulk of the season. In a contract year, Burns weighed injuries versus production for longer than he likes to admit.

"My mind was all over the place this season," Burns said. "Starting off the season we had a lot of our key guys going down. Generally what I was dealing with in camp, I was terrified to get hurt. Then start dealing with injury, a lot of things play into your head and so like I said, I've dealt with a lot of stuff mentally and emotionally but I think it's gonna make me stronger for future."

The fear created a season that wasn't up to par, by Burns own standards. His 8.0 sacks (including one from Sunday) are the lowest since his rookie year. The two-time Pro-Bowler has started to carve a legacy in Charlotte though, and his impact on Sunday, whether drawing attention to open up space for teammates, or making the play himself, was a reminder of the foundation Burns can give this defense.

"There were a lot of ups and downs" Burns said. "There are a lot of things that we went through that people just wouldn't understand. I feel like it is going to be a stepping stone. A lesson learned. Like this is something that is going to help us in the long run. Help me personally in the long run. Because going through that much adversity is going to make you tough."

So where does this Carolina Panthers defense go from here? That's yet to be determined. Free agency and autonomy from a yet to be named head coach can affect so many factors. But if defense wins championships, those in the Panthers locker room are adamant they have a championship caliber defense. Now they just want a chance to prove it.

View all the action from the Panthers' game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 18.

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