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Panthers defense wakes up atop the league

Brian Burns

CHARLOTTE — There are plenty of conditions you can put on it.

It's early yet. They haven't gone on the road. The schedule, this or that.

But when you boil what's happened in the first two weeks of the season down to cold, hard numbers, there's a factual conclusion.

At this moment, after two games, according to statistics, the Carolina Panthers have the best defense in the NFL.

The Panthers currently lead the league in a number of defensive categories, enough that you have to make a list or else they'll get lost in a sea of numbers:

— Yards allowed per game (190.0)

— Points allowed per game (10.5)

— Passing yards allowed per game (143.5)

— Rushing yards allowed per game (46.5)

— Sacks (10)

— Quarterback hits (21)

— Defensive third-down percentage (25.0)

Just to put those numbers into context, the Panthers were 18th in total and scoring defense, 23rd in sacks, and 31st in third-down conversions (yes, next to last in the league) in 2020.

The fact they reached those rankings by shutting down the Saints Sunday made it even more gratifying, though most of the guys contributing weren't around for many or any of the recent problems against New Orleans (the Saints had won four straight and eight of nine against the Panthers prior to Sunday).

"It says a lot," Panthers defensive end Brian Burns said. "In all honesty, the defense had a very dominant performance for the second week in a row. I'm proud of them for real.

"I'm just liking the energy, to be honest. We're all playing together and for each other, and that's why we're so dominant right now."

The improvements in the pass rush are the most significant and most obvious difference at the moment.

Burns is an emerging star, and they found him some help, signing free agents Haason Reddick, Morgan Fox, and DaQuan Jones this offseason.

Haason Reddick

Reddick leads the team with three sacks at the moment, but eight different players have at least half a sack already.

"Right now, exceeding," Reddick said of the expectations for the pass rush. "I wouldn't lie, right now we are exceeding where I thought we could be, and it's surprising to me, but it's just a testament to the work that we put in during training camp and OTAs.

"Getting here, gelling with each other, bonding, getting to know each other and everybody just committing to one goal, out there playing as hard as possible."

As Reddick noted, it's not just about sacks. The fact the Panthers are able to lead the league in that category at the moment depends on the run defense being as good as it is. Keeping Alvin Kamara and one of the league's best offensive lines in check on early downs made it easier on passing downs, and that collective work is what they're clearly most proud of at the moment.

When Panthers coach Matt Rhule was asked about the pressure Sunday, he began by praising the run defense, and then went through a laundry list of individual players who did particular things, and then the schematic details that allowed them to succeed.

In short, it's a lot of stuff, and it has come together quickly to the credit of many.

"At the end of the day," Rhule said, "they owned it, they delivered on it."

Now, when the Panthers come to work Monday to begin preparing for their Thursday game against the Texans, they'll be greeted by the weekly challenge to go 1-0. That means little time to celebrate, and more focus on what's to come.

"I'm sure the guys are happy we won," Rhule said. "I want them to feel like my hard work and preparation is working. I think that's the message. It's not about am I good enough. It's am I doing the right things to win and then they have to be honest about, hey, this is what I need to do to improve. When you win a game, it brings a whole new set of problems. We have got to improve. But I want them to be happy. They work really hard. We have guys who lay it on the line and sacrifice a lot.

"There is a lot of sacrifice and humility from a lot of guys in that locker room. You can't have that many sacks from that many people and not have it be everyone else doing their jobs. So that guy gets up and the camera goes on him, but a lot of guys covering, doing a nice job. And it's the offense. Trust me, there are so many times on fourth-and-1, fourth-and-2, I want to go for it, but I keep saying you've got a good defense today. Trust the defense. Pump the ball down. It's just a little bit of everyone to me."

View photos from the field during Carolina's Week 2 game against the Saints at Bank of America Stadium.

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