CHARLOTTE – The last couple of games have seen the Panthers' defense stumble out of the gates before settling down and dominating.
"Starting slow is a concern, but it's not a major problem," linebacker James Anderson said. "We just had to key into what we needed to do and play Panther defense."
Anderson, along with fellow defensive starter Charles Johnson, know about slow starts.
But Anderson and Johnson – like the Panthers' defense as a whole -- also know about finishing strong.
Over the first seven combined NFL seasons for the former third-round draft picks, Anderson and Johnson started 14 games between them. If both start as expected Sunday at the St. Louis Rams, they'll have combined for 14 starts already this season.
And Anderson and Johnson, a defensive end, are finishing what they start. Anderson leads the Panthers and is among the league leaders with 70 tackles, and Johnson leads the team with three sacks.
"It definitely needs to be more," Johnson said. "We've been OK, but we're 1-5, so you can't say we've been good. We've got to pick our game up, max it out."
The Panthers were 0-5, but Johnson made one of the most pivotal plays against San Francisco to help Carolina claim its first victory. On the third snap of the second half, Johnson got to 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and ended his day with a sack in the shadow of his own end zone that resulted in a shoulder injury.
From there, San Francisco's offense produced just three points.
"I like getting sacks, and that one was a good lick," Johnson said. "It was wide open, and I just took it."
Similarly, Johnson took control of what became a wide-open competition for playing time at defensive end.
Johnson spent all but the final three games of his rookie season in 2007 on the inactive list, then Julius Peppers and Tyler Brayton occupied the starting spots on the ends for nearly every game in 2008 and '09.
Peppers' departure to the Chicago Bears, however, opened the door, and Johnson walked right in. In addition to his three sacks, Johnson ranks second to Derek Landri among Panthers' defensive linemen with 24 tackles.
"I can't say it's been a good season for me because we're 1-5, but we're just going to try to get on this train and get going," Johnson said. "We've just got to keep getting better every game, and I'm trying to do as much as I can to help the team out."
It's much the same approach and situation for Anderson, who started three games over his first three seasons. Last year, Anderson started seven games due to injuries, including the final six following season-ending injuries to Thomas Davis and Landon Johnson.
A second knee injury suffered by Davis over the summer sealed that Anderson would start this season, but Anderson would have been in the running to start anyway with Na'il Diggs relocating to the Rams.
"I feel like I'm blessed to have this opportunity because I don't feel like I've done anything much different this year than in years past," Anderson said. "It's just having the opportunities and taking advantage. I'm pretty happy with the way I'm playing, but there's always improvement to be made. I look for ways to get better every day."