CHARLOTTE – From 28th to 10th to 2nd.
That's the progression of the Carolina Panthers' defense in total defense rankings over the last three seasons.
Despite boasting a front seven loaded with young talent, few expected this unit to be this good this fast.
Yet here they are, ranked second in total defense (283.3 yards per game) and scoring defense (12.8 points per game) after nine games.
What prompted this transformation?
"It's a variety of reasons," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said.
1. THE MIDDLE MAN
"Luke's ascension as our middle linebacker has helped," head coach Ron Rivera said.
And that's putting it lightly. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is the face of this defensive rise.
The 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and league leader in tackles provides rare leadership and instincts, and the production speaks for itself.
Kuechly has been the MIKE linebacker in Carolina for 21 games, averaging 12.5 tackles per game during that period. He took over that role in Week 5 of his rookie season in 2012.
During that 21-game span, the Panthers rank second in rushing defense and fourth in passing defense.
In the prior 21 games, Carolina ranked 24th in rushing defense and 26th in passing defense.
2. YEAR THREE
"For a lot of these guys it is the second or third year in the system," Rivera said. "At that point, you see guys playing very comfortable and very fast."
Rivera came to Carolina in 2011 with a decorated background in defense. In each year since his arrival, the Panthers have improved on the defensive side of the ball.
More experience in Rivera and McDermott's system has led to more comfortable and assignment-sound players. There's been less thinking and more reacting.
Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, linebacker Thomas Davis and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn – all defensive starters who were here when Rivera and his staff took over – are now playing the best football of their careers.
The value of continuity can't be overstated.
Said Rivera: "It makes a huge difference."
3. INFLUX OF NEW TALENT
"The personnel department has done an outstanding job of bringing in new talent," McDermott said.
Safety Mike Mitchell, linebacker Chase Blackburn, defensive tackle Colin Cole, cornerback Drayton Florence and safety Quintin Mikell all signed as free agents in 2013.
All five have contributed to Carolina's success.
The most impressive contribution has come from Mitchell, who previously started nine games in four years with the Oakland Raiders.
"He fits very nicely," Rivera said.
In nine games, Mitchell already has more interceptions (3) than he did in four seasons in Oakland (2).
He was initially brought in to compliment free safety Charles Godfrey at strong safety. When Godfrey suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2, Mitchell took over at free safety and has provided the imposing presence in the defensive backfield the Panthers needed.
Free agent acquisitions don't always pan out. But general manager Dave Gettleman's additions have meshed and made a good defense better.
"The talent level here is ridiculous. I remember coming here on my visit. I was like, 'Oh my gosh,'" Mitchell said. "The opportunity was just too good."
4. ROOKIES STEP IN, STEP UP
"There was a point in the (San Francisco) game where we had five rookies on the field," Rivera said.
The influx of new, impactful defensive talent continued with the Panthers' 2013 rookie class.
Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short – the team's first and second round picks – have solidified the interior and have been consistently disruptive forces. They've been perfect compliments to dynamic edge rushers Johnson and Hardy.
Linebacker A.J. Klein – the team's fifth-round selection – made his first career start in place of an injured Blackburn last week and didn't miss a beat, posting a sack and tackle for loss.
And undrafted rookie defensive backs have emerged to play significant roles. Cornerback Melvin White has emerged as the starter opposite Munnerlyn. Robert Lester has been splitting time at strong safety with Mikell.
"Us rookies," Short said, "we do what we need to do to make sure we are capable when our number is called."
"Our trust for one another," Mitchell said, when asked why Carolina's defense has been so successful.
The Panthers defense – which hasn't allowed more than 15 points in five straight games – is beaming with confidence.
This defense expects to dominate.
Most importantly, the players have confidence in one another. And they have confidence in the plan they are executing.
"The players have established a sense of pride in what we do – a buy in and an identity within that buy in," McDermott said. "They are reaping the benefits of their hard work."