CHARLOTTE – One of the overlooked bright spots from the Panthers' win over the Jets was the play of second-year defensive tackle Vernon Butler.
"It was his best game as a pro," defensive line coach Eric Washington said matter-of-factly. "He impacted the game as a three-down defender."
Butler played 29 snaps – just four fewer than starter Star Lotulelei – and finished with a career-high four tackles and a pass breakup against New York. He was also a factor in several stops behind the line of scrimmage and made his presence felt in passing situations. For what it's worth, he was the third-highest graded Panther overall according to Pro Football Focus.
"He's starting to be productive, which is what we need him to be as a pass rusher and point-of-attack run defender," Washington said. "Real pleased with the development. His position fundamentals are as good as I've seen them."
Washington's eyes lit up talking about one play from the Jets game in particular, and Butler didn't get any credit for it on the stat sheet.
When Julius Peppers crushed quarterback Josh McCown for a sack on third down in the fourth quarter, it was due in large part to Butler's quick interior disruption, which made McCown drop his eyes in the pocket.
"Watch Vernon's rush on that play," Washington said.
Check it out below.
While Butler was ecstatic to help create a sack on third down, he's still anxiously awaiting his first sack of the 2017 season. The former first-round pick recorded a solo sack in his first career game and hasn't had another one since.
"Of course, that's what every D-lineman wants, to get to the quarterback," Butler said. "I feel like it's going to come; it's bound to happen soon. I'm just going to keep rushing, keep doing my job."
He's putting himself in much better position to make impact plays than he was earlier in the year, when the coaching staff made him a healthy scratch in Week 5 against the Lions.
"It was a reminder that there is nothing promised in this business. You have to earn your spot every single day," Washington said. "I see more of a sense of urgency from Vernon in that respect, and it's starting to show out on the practice field."
Butler's improved play is coming at the perfect time for Carolina, especially considering this week's opponent.
With quarterback Drew Brees' propensity for getting the ball out quickly, interior disruption is critical to stifling the Saints' attack.
"It really is," Washington said. "We have to prevent Brees from stepping up in the pocket."
Said Butler: "We've got to be smart with our rushes, use those inside moves and get him off his spot or get our hands up. We can't let him sit there and throw."
The likes of Kawann Short, Mario Addison and Julius Peppers have been Carolina's most consistent pass rushers with 20 of the team's 32 sacks between them, and they'll need to be at their best Sunday if the Panthers are to prevail in the Superdome.
And a disruptive Butler only makes the group better.
"I put a solid four quarters together against the Jets," Butler said. "But I can do more."
The Panthers are counting on it.
View photos from the week of practice leading up to the Panthers game against the Saints.