CHARLOTTE – As the 2016 Panthers were stumbling to a 1-4 start, plenty was going wrong. That included the pass rush – or lack thereof.
Through five games, nine guys had sacks, but all nine had just one. After Week 6, a loss in New Orleans, Tre Boston had pulled ahead for the team lead. The safety had two.
Compare that with what's happened through five games this season. The Panthers have totaled 17 sacks, good for third-most in the league. And four guys have more than one:
- Julius Peppers – 5.5
- Mario Addison – 3.0
- Kawann Short – 3.0
- Shaq Thompson – 2.0
The 37-year-old Peppers has so far looked “like one of the best offseason free-agent pickups in the league,” but the uptick in pressure isn't just a 2017 thing.
Over their final 10 games last season, the Panthers rallied with 35 sacks to finish behind only Arizona for the league lead. Add that finishing kick with this year's strong start and you get an NFL-best 52.0 sacks, five more than Pittsburgh, the next-closest team.
So what's opened the floodgates?
As with most things in the NFL, it wasn't just one problem that needed fixing. But a big reason for the lack of pressure at the outset of 2016 was a lack of production from defensive end Kony Ealy.
Coming off his dominating performance in the Super Bowl, the Panthers hoped Ealy would break out in his third season. Instead, Ealy lost his starting job during the bye week. Wes Horton took over Ealy's starting spot, but the biggest increase in playing time went to Mario Addison, who averaged 15 more snaps a game after the bye. All Addison has done since is pick up 11.0 sacks in his past 12 games.
But besides Peppers being a Hall of Fame upgrade over Ealy, this year's defense has other advantages over last season's. There's the more experienced cornerback combination of James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, the re-addition of skilled blitzer Captain Munnerlyn and the attacking mindset of Steve Wilks, who's much more aggressive than former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. A quick look at the Panthers' six sacks of Lions quarterback Matt Stafford – which all came with the help of an extra rusher – proves that last point.
Sack No. 1
D-Line: Charles Johnson, Peppers, Kawann Short, Addison
Double team: Short
Result: Addison uses his right hand to trip up Stafford, nearly forcing a turnover
Sack No. 2
D-Line: Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Short, Addison
Double team: Addison
Result: Short blows through his one-on-one, forcing a fumble recovered by linebacker Thomas Davis
Sack No. 3
D-Line: Peppers, Lotulelei, Short, Bryan Cox Jr.
Double team: Short
Result: Stafford's first read to wideout Golden Tate was covered by safety Mike Adams, Stafford then trips, allowing Peppers to increase his season total to 5.5
Sack No. 4
D-Line: Johnson, Kyle Love, Short, Cox
Double team: Cox
Result: Thompson comes in unblocked, giving Stafford no time to even set up
Sack No. 5
D-Line: Peppers, Lotulelei, Short, Addison
Blitzer: Thompson, Munnerlyn
Double team: Short
Result: Wilks throws in a wrinkle, dropping Peppers back and sending Thompson and Munnerlyn, who finishes the pressure started by Lotulelei's inside push
Sack No. 6
D-Line: Johnson, Lotulelei, Short, Peppers
Double team: Lotulelei
Result: This was mostly a result of good coverage, but it's also why teams would be wise to keep focusing their double teams on Short
"We all get double-teamed here and there and we've got to take advantage of that one-on-one when we do get it," Short said Monday.
"Mario knows he can kill these guys off the edge with his feet and Pep and so can Charles. Me and Star, we know we can be powerful in the middle. So I think we're just figuring how well we're working with each other and what we're doing to help each other out."
Now the group will need to keep the pressure rising Thursday night against Eagles second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, who hasn't had the best protection this season. Wentz has been sacked 13 times, which puts the Eagles in the middle of the pack in that category, and he'll likely be without starting right tackle Lane Johnson, who's in the league's concussion protocol.
"With the way Peppers is coming off the edge, and the way they got after Stafford last week, it's tough," Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said.
"They are pushing the pocket; they're getting pressure, this is an active group. They love to stunt and they get up the field. (Short), Lotulelei and even Kyle Love, who we had in Kansas City for a brief time, these guys are playing good. They're playing stout, they're playing strong, and it's a good test for our offensive line."
View photos of the week of practice leading up to the Panthers' game against the Eagles.