From the first days of training camp, Panthers defensive end Wes Horton was convinced he was watching the early stages of what could become a great defense.
Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was back from a concussion that sidelined him for the final six games in 2016, and took his customary spot alongside veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, another Pro Bowler.
The newly minted Kawann Short was again anchoring the interior of the defensive line after signing a five-year, $80.5 million contract. Edge rusher Mario Addison also was rewarded with a contract extension after putting up a career year in ’16.
And of course there was the man they call Pepp – the agile and ageless defensive end Julius Peppers, whose return to his original team on a one-year deal was celebrated in sports bars across the Carolinas, as well as in the Panthers’ locker room.
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More than three months later, Carolina (6-3) enters Monday night’s game against Miami (4-4) with the NFL’s No. 1 defense, allowing 274.1 yards a game.
The Panthers are second in sacks (29), second against the run (78.4 yards allowed per game) and fourth in scoring defense (17.6 points per game).
Carolina has never finished No. 1 in total defense. The closest the Panthers came was in 2013 and 2002, when they were second in the league defensively.
But this group has the look of a championship-caliber defense.
“I saw it in training camp, to be honest with you,” Horton said. “The way guys were flying around the ball. The veterans that we brought in in free agency. The camaraderie that we’ve had. The leadership from those free agents.”
Dolphins coach Adam Gase said the Panthers’ defense lives up to its billing.
“Their ranking pretty much tells a lot of the story. It’s probably the best defense that we’ve played this year so far,” Gase said. “The talent level up front is as good as you can get. I think the linebackers – I don’t think in our two years here we’ve ever played a group like this before.”
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When the Panthers gathered in Spartanburg in late July, the defense seemed like a good mix of young (second-year cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley) and old (the six defensive regulars who are 30 or older).
The one potential catch – and it was significant – was a changing of the guard at defensive coordinator after Sean McDermott left to become Buffalo’s head coach.
Ron Rivera stayed in-house, promoting secondary coach/assistant head coach Steve Wilks to lead a defense that was a top-10 unit in four of McDermott’s six seasons.
But the transition has been seamless.
Wilks kept McDermott’s 4-3 base scheme but has added his own wrinkles, calling more blitzes through the first nine games. Wilks, 48, a Charlotte native who played at Appalachian State, is a no-nonsense guy who interviewed for the Rams’ head-coaching vacancy last winter.
“I think the message has been consistent since April 17,” Wilks said, referring to the start of offseason workouts. “We talk about it all the time. It’s not about trying to motivate one another. It’s about being driven, because motivation comes and goes.”
After Wilks was promoted in January, former general manager Dave Gettleman began fortifying a defense that slipped to 21st last season after Gettleman rescinded cornerback Josh Norman’s franchise tag and went with a youth movement at the position.
Gettleman re-signed defensive ends Addison, Horton and Charles Johnson and brought in three free agents – Peppers, safety Mike Adams and nickel back Captain Munnerlyn.
Peppers’ arrival carried a certain heft, according to Kuechly.
“You bring a guy like Pepp in and he’s a first-ballot Hall of Fame guy for sure; I think he comes with a certain expectation of he’s here to win. And he’s here to win now,” Kuechly said. “He’s not here to screw around. He wants to win games and he wants guys to be responsible for what they’re doing and do their jobs.”
Peppers, 37, has played better than some experts expected. It took him only eight games to match his 2016 sack total (7.5) in his final season with Green Bay.
After the Panthers throttled Buffalo 9-3 in Week 2 – one of four games in which Carolina has not allowed an offensive touchdown – Peppers said this group was the best defense he’d been a part of.
Nothing he’s seen in the eight weeks since has changed his mind.
“I still feel like this is the best one,” Peppers said. “We’re not necessarily comparing ourselves to another team or another year’s defense. We’re competing and comparing ourselves to ourselves. I think that’s what keeps us going and that’s what keeps us sharp.”
This is the third time this season the Panthers have held the top spot, which they wrested from Denver this week after the Broncos gave up more than 400 yards in a 51-23 loss at Philadelphia.
The Panthers have held all nine of their opponents below their season average in net yards. Four teams – San Francisco, Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago – posted season lows in yardage against Carolina.
So what have been the keys to the defense’s success?
Gase, the Dolphins’ second-year coach, said the Panthers’ personnel allows them to be versatile scheme-wise. He pointed to outside linebacker Shaq Thompson, who plays nickel back in some situations instead of being replaced by Captain Munnerlyn.
“I don’t think you see too many teams where they’ll stay with their base personnel when you put three wide receivers out there,” Gase said.
“They basically have Shaq Thompson covering the slot receiver and he’s done an unbelievable job out there. And just to see how athletic those guys are, it makes it tough on the offense. It’s tough to run the ball and to throw the ball.”
Former Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker thinks Wilks’ use of A-gap blitzes with Kuechly and Davis – and just the threat of them coming in at the quarterback in the center-guard gaps – creates a conundrum for QBs.
Even if Kuechly and/or Davis end up dropping in coverage, Rucker says the look makes some quarterbacks pause just long enough in the pocket to be swallowed up by the pass rush.
Rivera, who was part of some great Chicago Bears defenses, says familiarity – especially among the front seven – has helped in terms of trust-building and consistency.
“Look at the defensive line. That group of guys has played together for a long time,” Rivera said. “Everybody except for Pepp, but everybody knows Pepp anyways.”
What could be better
As good as the defense has been, Rivera sees room for improvement.
Creating turnovers was the defense’s hallmark during the Super Bowl season of 2015, when the Panthers intercepted an NFL-best 24 passes, finished with 39 takeaways and led the league with a plus-20 turnover margin.
Carolina only has eight takeaways through nine games this season, a figure that is tied for 26th in the league. And though Adams has interceptions in each of the past two games, Rivera says it’s not enough.
“They are doing pretty good right now, but we’re not taking the ball away like we’re capable of doing,” Rivera said this week. “Just imagine if we could do that.”
But Davis says the defense views a fourth-down stop as the equivalent of a takeaway, and the Panthers have held opponents to a 4-for-14 mark in those situations.
“People don’t consider that a takeaway, but we do,” Davis said. “And we’ve been good at that all season long – getting off the field on fourth down.”
Horton, the backup defensive end, said he doesn’t get too caught up in numbers. But he cited a very specific stat when discussing what the defense can improve, saying the Panthers want to get opponents’ average yards per rush down from 3.7 to 3.3 a carry.
As for Wilks, he says the most important stat is scoring defense and believes the 17.6 points per game the Panthers are giving up is enough to win most weeks. But Wilks is most concerned about making sure his defense plays with confidence.
“I think that’s most important, particularly this time of the year when you start talking about November and December. You need that swag,” Wilks said. “Those guys are playing with that.”
Kuechly, who leads the team in tackles despite missing one game while in the concussion protocol, says being the league’s top defense is a good reference point.
But the end game is most important.
“It’s somewhere you want to be when you start the season. But that was the first half of the season and now is when teams start to separate,” Kuechly said. “At the end of the year if we don’t win any more games, and we were the No. 1 defense halfway through the season, it doesn’t mean anything.”
Peppers, who started the best-ever talk in September, isn’t ready to crown this defense just yet.
“If we was talking at the end of the year and that was the case, we’d be excited about that,” he said. “But there’s a lot of games left to be played, and each time we step on the field our reputation is on the line. So it doesn’t matter where we’re ranked at. It’s about how we play that day.”
Dolphins at Panthers
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
When: Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Watch: ESPN, WSOC (Charlotte)
Best defenses in Panthers history
lost in NFC champ. game
lost in divisional round