CHARLOTTE – When the game has been on the line, the Panthers have gotten the goods from their defensive line.
That's in part because the individuals along the defensive front have been in good shape – literally – to deliver at the end of a grueling game.
"Within the system, one thing we always want to try to do is have fresh bodies on the field, fresh rushers on the field," defensive line coach Brady Hoke said. "There's a sweet spot there."
Hoke readily admits that in his first year with the Panthers and his first in the NFL after 30-plus seasons on the college level, he's still searching for the heart of that sweet spot. He said he used defensive end Mario Addison too much too early in the Week 2 loss to the Falcons, and finding the right mix of snaps and sideline time for Julius Peppers is a continuing process.
But at defensive tackle, the Panthers' stars have been fresh at the end of games and their backups have been warmed up for the stretch run. Last year, starters Kawaan Short and Star Lotulelei essentially took two snaps for every one snap taken by Kyle Love and Vernon Butler. Through three games, starters Short and Dontari Poe are taking less than one-and-a-half snaps for every snap by Love and Butler.
"We don't have a system where I take all the reps or Poe takes all the reps. We have a rotation," Short said. "If we get tired or someone gets subbed in, we run right off the field and feel very comfortable with every guy at the position. The starters don't need to be in there every single play.
"I don't doubt anybody in that room. We all can do the same thing. It's not like I need to be in there because the person behind me isn't doing his job."
After Short was key to two of the three stops on the Falcons' final drive in Week 2 that at least gave Carolina a shot at tying the game, Love's push set the stage for Efe Obada's crucial sack late in the Week 3 victory over the Bengals.
"Kyle Love last week really rushed the passer well, did a great job, and Vernon keeps taking some strides forward. We've got to keep pushing him ahead," Hoke said. "And obviously with Poe and KK, you've got two guys who can collapse the pocket and make plays."
Short said the defensive line through three games has been "up and down," with Carolina going into the bye week 19th in the league in total defense but 12th in scoring defense.
Hoke said he's using the "break" to access how the defensive line can meet its high standards going forward. He also shared his thoughts on several other topics as he continues to settle in.
On where he looks for support as a newcomer to an established staff: "It's a great place to work with a lot of people who steer you in the right direction when you're not quite sure. This staff and how this team works every day, it's a real benefit for someone on this level for the first time with the quality and the character that Coach (Ron Rivera) and (GM) Marty (Hurney) and the guys on the staff that have been here have created."
On assistant defensive line coach Sam Mills III, a member of the coaching staff since 2005: "Sam does a great job. We split the group at times. He takes the ends and does a tremendous job with them. His knowledge of the system is a benefit to me. You wouldn't want anybody else with you in that foxhole."
On international player Efe Obada winning NFL Defensive Player of the Week following his pro debut: "You couldn't be happy for a guy who works the way Efe works every day and the effort he gives. His thirst for knowledge as he goes about still in some ways learning American football, it's just incredible. It couldn't happen to a guy who deserves it anymore. He comes to practice and meetings always wanting to learn and doing as much as he can to help the football team."
On what to expect from future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers after the bye: "There's no doubt that he's getting closer and closer to being what people are used to in a lot of ways. He gives us great leadership, as much by example as anything else. His work ethic and also his note-taking. This is a guy playing his 18th year, and he takes as good a notes in meetings as anybody that I've been around. He really is the standard for what you want to be as a defensive lineman."
On the new roughing the passer/leading with the helmet rules (the Panthers haven't been flagged in the regular season after drawing several flags in the preseason): "Coach Rivera did a great job with the players addressing the new rules, and we've got to try to make that adjustment. We've worked a couple of drills trying to make that adjustment. It's never going to go back the other way, but at the same time the officials in the league also have to get used to how they're seeing things and calling it."