CHARLOTTE – Midway through the 2018 season, the Oakland Raiders released Bruce Irvin and the Panthers were interested in acquiring his services.
Ultimately though, Irvin decided to return to his hometown and sign with the division rival Atlanta Falcons. Instead of having Irvin suit up in black and blue, Rivera now found himself having to game plan against him. In the Week 16 matchup against the Falcons, Irvin tallied two tackles and a sack. The former Seahawk always seemed to give Carolina trouble.
Now, another season later, Rivera finally got his wish and Irvin is a key part of the Panthers' defensive front.
"He has credibility," defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. "Bruce is a person that the younger players are going to listen to because he's going to back up whatever he says with how he practices, how he approaches his job, and then ultimately, his production on Sunday."
After missing the first three games with a pulled hamstring, Irvin finally got his season started in Week 4, but he had his most productive outing of the year last Sunday against the 49ers. Irvin recorded a season-high four tackles and two sacks, one of which resulted in a safety and helped energize the Panthers a bit during the otherwise frustrating beatdown.
"If it's 50 to 12 I play hard, if it's 25-21 I play hard, that's just who I am," Irvin said. "I kind of lead by my play, how I carry myself, how I approach the game every day."
But Irvin doesn't just lead through his performance on the field. Early in the second quarter when the Panthers were already trailing by 18 points, Irvin gathered the defense together in an attempt to get the unit in gear.
"Things aren't always going to go well, but all you can do is your part and do your job," Rivera said. "That's where you want to be able to feed off of somebody else's energy. A guy like that who's leading by example is really what you want. I thought that was outstanding. We're getting the unintended leadership just from his ability to go out there and play hard all the time no matter what."
Irvin's leadership couldn't have come at a better time for the Panthers defense – particularly for a defensive line that has quite a few young players. Rookies Brian Burns and Christian Miller have been standouts in the pass rush, and they've had the opportunity to learn from a seasoned vet.
"He just does a great job using his experience to tell us things we can work on, what we can expect, how to prepare for things, how to go about things, things that are going to come up," Miller said. "He's done it, and he's done it at a high level for a number of years, so somebody like him is important to have for people like me and Brian with our development."
Burns said that it's incredible for a rookie to have such great resources to learn from like Irvin and fellow veterans Gerald McCoy and Mario Addison.
"Situations, technique, knowledge of the game overall," Burns said. "He (Bruce) has a unique pass rush tandem he throws together in his arsenal. Him just showing us that, teaching us that is an amazing thing."
Irvin has never considered himself to be a leader. Maybe that's because he never goes out of his way to lead. But he's a guy teammates gravitate to.
"I just be me. I don't go out here thinking I've got to be a leader, because I've never been in that type of role," Irvin said. "Those kinds of (young) guys, they take heed to everything you do.
"They look at what older guys do and they kind of follow that. I just do my best to stay on the right track and lead the right way."