CHARLOTTE – Last Sunday, when members of the Carolina defense returned to the bench after forcing a Falcons' three-and-out to start the second half, Panthers TV cameras captured a message from linebackers coach Al Holcomb.
"Great three-and-out guys, that's the way you start the half right there," Holcomb said. "We still need takeaways though."
The Panthers, leading 28-0, had yet to force a turnover, and Holcomb simply reminded them of that fact. The players responded in stunningly effective fashion.
Atlanta went on to turn the ball over on its next three possessions.
Linebacker A.J. Klein forced a fumble that defensive end Kony Ealy recovered; defensive tackle Kawann Short strip-sacked quarterback Matt Ryan and made the recovery; and lastly, linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted a pass over the middle.
At game's end, the Panthers had increased their league-leading takeaway total to 33 (21 interceptions and 12 fumbles). Carolina has forced 21 of those turnovers in the last seven games. The team with the second-most takeaways is Philadelphia, who has produced 25 this season.
"It's a part of our philosophy, no doubt," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said of the takeaways. "We work on it every week, much like we do tackling. We run the circuit every week, and it's not just going through the motions. It's a concerted effort for quality reps, and it shows up in the games."
McDermott, like every defensive coordinator across the country, stresses the importance of takeaways at the start of every season. So it begs the question: Why so much success this year?
"I think it's a little bit of a mindset," said linebacker Luke Kuechly, second on the team with four interceptions. "You go into a game with certain goals and there are certain things we practice during the week, picking up balls after an incomplete pass, and stuff like that translates.
"It's contagious. And when you see other guys doing it, you want to do it too."
Kuechly claims Carolina caught the bug in the season opener against the Jaguars when cornerback Josh Norman forced and recovered a fumble and later returned an interception for a touchdown.
"Josh set that tone for us in that first game," Kuechly said.
Ever since, takeaways have fueled the Panthers defense.
"One of the main things that separates them is the ability to get turnovers," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said in the lead up to Sunday's game. "That's what great defenses do."
All of those takeaways have helped Carolina, tops in the NFL in scoring and turnover differential at plus-18, put points on the board. Of the Panthers 411 points, 117 of them have come off turnovers.
And interestingly enough, opposing offenses have yet to score a touchdown following a Panthers turnover all season.
"The takeaways have helped us play complementary football, and it's been fun to watch," McDermott said. "It's about putting pressure on the opponent and hopefully good things come about. That's been the case this year."
View photos from the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game against the Giants.