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Still a Star in the making


CHARLOTTE – On the second defensive snap of the Panthers' playoff opener, defensive tackle Kawann Short got right into doing his thing, bursting through Seattle's line, putting pressure on the quarterback and forcing a bad pass that resulted in a pick-six.

But who knows if the Seahawks would have even been throwing on second down if they hadn't been thrown for a 3-yard loss on the first snap by Short's running mate?

"I did what I was supposed to do," defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said. "I had my number called, and I executed."

Short is having arguably the best season of any defensive tackle in the NFL – Lotulelei, in fact, would argue for that distinction. But Lotulelei, selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, one round before Short, is quietly having a notable impact as well.

The duo will be key when the Panthers host the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship on Sunday evening.

"He's a big help," Short said. "That guy eats up the run game. He's producing.

"We're growing together, and it's going to be crazy what we do these next couple of years."

With Short tying two others for the most sacks among defensive tackles in the NFL this season with 11 – a franchise record at the position – and with Lotulelei recording just one sack, it's easy to see why, given their draft slots, some might view Short to be overachieving and Lotulelei to be underachieving.

But while Short's sack numbers are incredibly impressive at a position where stats are hard to come by, Lotulelei's numbers shouldn't be held against him.

"I know KK gets a lot of the press, but I feel like Star is doing just as much," fellow defensive tackle Kyle Love said. "And just watching them together, that's a real tandem. They're animals out there.

"We're not a big numbers team. We just feed off each other. One thing that this guy does may help the next guy. Let's say KK has a great game so the next week they're doubling him or trying tricky schemes surrounding him. That opens it up for other guys to make plays. KK making Pro Bowl and All-Pro, it's like we all made Pro Bowl and All-Pro – one unit."

The duo's relative strengths were pretty much a known quantity coming out of college after Short recorded 13 sacks his last two seasons at Purdue and Lotulelei recorded exactly half that total his last two seasons at Utah but utterly dominated against the run.

"KK and Star, they form a really good tandem inside," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Star seems to do a lot of the dirty work, a lot of physical work, and KK is explosive, a good pass rusher and inside move guy.

"It's a good combination for us."

Still, even while understanding his role, Lotulelei is his own worst critic. While Lotulelei missed the first two games with a foot injury suffered in training camp, Short had eight quarterback pressures but no sacks. When Lotulelei returned to the lineup, the sacks soon followed for Short.

That's fine by Lotulelei, though he's not totally fine with how his season has gone.

"It's been OK," he said. "I started off a little slow coming off that injury. KK has made it a lot easier to be able to ease my way back in.

"It's been good. I'm working on it."

In the meantime, he'll keep doing work as a valuable asset for the Panthers, a physical presence in the middle of the defense who isn't going to post mind-boggling numbers but isn't worried about it, either.

"Our team recognizes it," Lotulelei said. "You've got to be one-eleventh of the defense. You've got to do your job and not make things bigger than they need to be."

View photos from the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game against the Cardinals.

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