CHARLOTTE – "Hard Knocks" indeed.
The Panthers' defensive line, a unit fighting to establish an identity, faced a Miami Dolphins squad Friday night establishing its identity in front of a television audience on HBO's preseason documentary series.
The Panthers' defensive line stole the show.
"We want to become a dominant force that can take over games. We took a step toward that tonight," defensive end Thomas Keiser said following Carolina's 23-17 victory at Bank of America Stadium. "We understand that we have the potential to change the game. It starts up front with us."
It literally started up front when, on the defense's first snap, defensive tackle Ron Edwards stuffed Miami running back Reggie Bush after a 1-yard gain. Edwards, expected to be the anchor of the line against the run after missing all of last season with a triceps injury, soon followed by throwing Bush for a 2-yard loss.
It was the first of four tackles for loss for the Panthers, but the line's push wasn't limited to the run game. Carolina collected three sacks, all before halftime, and batted down four passes.
The defense set up the offense early and often, and the offense responded with 17 first-quarter points. Not only did the Dolphins fail to score in the opening quarter; they didn't even muster a first down until the final snap of the quarter.
"I was very pleased with the defensive line's effort," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "They pushed well inside, and our edge rushers came off the line very nicely and made some plays."
Quality depth is always a key attribute to success up front, and the Panthers' line didn't miss a beat when the starters gave way to the second unit in the second quarter. Two of the team's sacks were credited to reserves, with Keiser and rookie Frank Alexander taking down rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
"A lot of the guys were teasing me, saying I needed a celebration, but I was just so happy I didn't know what to do," Alexander said. "Coach always stresses that there should be no let-up when the second team is out there.
"We pride ourselves on getting off the ball and playing hard, too."
Defensive end Charles Johnson, the team's sack leader each of the last two seasons, gathered Carolina's first sack and also was the first Panther to tip away a pass. Following a lackluster preseason opener for the defense, Johnson correctly predicted a better showing Friday.
"I told you," Johnson said. "When you practice like we did, you just have a feeling you're going to come out and play good. Now it's time to go back to the drawing board and get better."
Keiser, who also had a deflection to go with his sack, said defensive line coach Eric Washington stressed solid fundamentals in practice all week, and that it paid off.
But Keiser, much like Johnson, said the defensive line can't afford to rest on its laurels.
"I'm not going to say we answered all the questions tonight," he said. "I'm not going to say that until we put it together in a regular season game.
"But we're on the right track. We're not where we want to be, but we're getting there."