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The Day After: Offensive line key in pass protection, dominant drives

Teddy Bridgewater

CHARLOTTE — When a zero pops up next to a quarterback's name in the sacks column, the credit usually goes directly to the offensive line.

The unit deserves it, being the most critical position group dedicated to keeping the signal-caller upright.

Every offensive lineman takes pride in keeping his quarterback's jersey clean. But there's an extra incentive for the Panthers as they protect Teddy Bridgewater.

"He's a great person," left tackle Russell Okung said after Sunday's game. "Who would want to get that guy hit?"

Despite shifts in personnel — the Panthers have started three different O-Line combinations in their first five games — the unit is jelling. In Sunday's win over the Falcons, Okung, Chris Reed, Matt Paradis, John Miller, and Taylor Moton were on the field together for the first time.

"As a group, we're just bonding together and having fun playing with each other out there on the field," Miller said.

The Panthers have not allowed a sack in back-to-back games for the first time since early in the 2011 season. Through five games, they've surrendered just eight sacks, and as of Monday afternoon, they've allowed the third-fewest QB pressures at 25.

"We take extreme pride in being able to protect Teddy," Okung said.

But even as the offensive line has performed well, that's not the only reason Bridgewater has mostly remained upright.

"A lot of that comes from Teddy taking a good drop, getting the ball out of his hands early, receivers being detailed in their routes and getting open, and running backs in protection as well as tight ends," Miller said. "You have to contribute all of those different things."

The offensive line's performance also comes into play during long, dominant drives toward the end of the game like Carolina had on Sunday. The Panthers rushed for 57 yards in the fourth quarter, sustaining a 14-play, 76-yard drive that took 7:39 off the clock in large part because the line was able to wear down Atlanta's defense. Running back Mike Davis had seven carries for 34 yards on the drive, and wide receiver Curtis Samuel took a key, third-down handoff 17 yards.

"It was a real good spark, that run (Samuel) had," Miller said.

The Panthers' offensive line got more of an edge for those situations after the failed fourth-and-inches handoff to fullback Alex Armah late in the season-opening loss to Las Vegas. Miller noted the group took ownership and accountability over the loss and vowed to become more detailed so it wouldn't happen again.

As the fourth quarter numbers illustrate, the shift is paying dividends.

"We want to come out there on Wednesday practice and be physical in the run game, and that's kind of the mindset we take into the week," Miller said.

Plenty is working for the offensive line and pass protection so far, but there's always room for improvement.

"Honestly, there are some things we didn't do so well yesterday," Bridgwater said. "But I think what's happening is we're getting the ball out fast enough sometimes to beat pressures, or guys are just squeezing and bumping back in protections — different things allowing me to just operate and get the ball to our playmakers."

MIKE DAVIS IS 'ASTOUNDING'

Davis' career-best 149 scrimmage yards were instrumental in Sunday's win. While head coach Matt Rhule hasn't necessarily been surprised by Davis' performances the past three weeks, he didn't know how good Davis would be at running through contact.

"The physical nature of trying to punish defenders, carrying piles for an extra yard, extra two yards, those are the things that you don't notice in the moment, but they add up over time," Rhule said. "Just because of the way we have to practice, I don't know that I ever saw that. But I'm seeing it now."

Bridgewater noted Monday that he'd mainly heard that Davis was a power back. But during training camp, Bridgewater chatted with Davis and realized how much more he could do.

"(H)e just used to tell me, 'Man, when I was in Seattle, I was the guy on the field during two-minute situations, coming out of the backfield, catching the ball, things like that,'" Bridgewater said. "And then it clicked because you watch him in one-on-ones against linebackers in training camp, he's running his routes. You watch him run the football, he's aggressive, he's angry.

"He's added a huge spark to this offense. He's matching that tough mentality that we've talked about, and he's putting it on display."

That's added up to some particularly strong play during Carolina's three-game winning streak.

"The way that Mike Davis is running the ball is astounding, it's crazy," Miller said. "He literally runs like he's pissed off, and that's what he said. And that's what you see on film."

PRIDE IMPROVING AT CORNER

Rookie cornerback Troy Pride Jr. was pressed into duty Sunday when Donte Jackson had to exit with a toe injury after playing just one snap. Pride, this year's fourth-round pick, played all but two of Carolina's 65 defensive snaps.

"He's out there playing with confidence, doing a good job," Rhule said. "There's things for him to work on, there's things for all of us to work on. But the more he plays, the better and better he'll get."

Pride started the Week 1 loss to Las Vegas but has played in spot duty since, filling in for Jackson when injuries have forced him out of games. Overall, Pride has been on the field for 57.1 percent of Carolina's defensive snaps.

Rhule had no update on Jackson, defensive tackle Kawann Short (shoulder), defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos (ankle), and defensive end Brian Burns (concussion), all of whom left Sunday's game due to injury and did not return. Updates on those players will likely come Wednesday with the first Week 6 injury report.

View the best photos from behind the scenes at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for Carolina's 23-16 win over Atlanta.

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