This weekend, the Carolina Panthers will face the ice-cold (What? You think that they've actually flawed out from that -20 degree game in Green Bay?) San Francisco 49ers in a rematch of their 10-9 defensive battle that ensued earlier this season. Although all eyes will be on Cam Newton, the former first overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, to see how he will play in his first ever playoff game, they should be focused elsewhere.
In the first game between these two teams, the 49ers' offense was stagnant. They settled for three field goals — the only scoring they had all game — and only had one drive longer than 17 yards. While some might point to the man under center for San Francisco as the problem that game, the real cause was Carolina's incredibly talented defensive line.
The combination of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy on the ends, with Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short on the inside, has resulted in one of the league's best defensive fronts this year. As a team, Carolina ranked second in yards allowed, second in rushing yards allowed, and second in points allowed. While there are certainly other great defensive players on the Panthers, including potential Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly, it was the line that stood out among the rest.
Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, Carolina's two defensive ends, have been a nightmare for opposing signal-callers all year long. Their 26 combined sacks were the second most by any duo in the NFL, trailing only the St. Louis Rams' Robert Quinn and Chris Long. But, their impact went far beyond just sack totals.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hardy and Johnson ranked fourth and fifth in the NFL for 4-3 defensive ends, respectively, in their Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) stat, which accounts for sacks, hits, hurries, and number of snaps when the player was rushing the quarterback to provide a clear picture of overall effectiveness. With that type of pressure coming from the outside, teams are unable to get the time needed to make big plays.
But it's not just the pressure on the outside that is slowing down opposing offenses; it's the muscle on the inside provided by two rookies, Kawann Short and Star Loutlelei. Short, Carolina's pass rushing defensive tackle whom they selected in the second round of the 2013 Draft, ranked ninth in the NFL in Pressure Percentage, which measures sacks, hits, and hurries relative to the number of times the player rushes the quarterback.
Short's impact on the pass rush serves as the perfect complement for Lotulelei, the Panthers' first round pick in this year's draft, who is one of the league's best at stopping the run. Lotulelei ranked second in the NFL in Stop Percentage, which measures the percentage of a player's run defense snaps where he was responsible for a stop. (Deadspin wrote a fantastic profile on Lotulelei earlier this year that you should read if you're interested in reading more on his defensive mastery.)
Yet it's not just this line's talent that is worth noting. On a Sunday Night Football game in early December, Greg Hardy introduced himself as "Kraken," then declared that his alma mater is the mythical school of Hogwarts. While on the surface it seemed like just another weird — and really, really funny — nickname, the story signifies something else.
Hardy isn't the only one with a nickname on the line. According to Deadspin, though originally sourced from the Charlotte Observer, Hardy created nicknames for the other three linemen: Charles "The Loch Ness Monster" Johnson, Kawaan "Minotaur" Short, and Star "Hydra" Lotulelei. And as a group, Hardy dubbed the line "MonStrz Inc."
This defensive line has unity, albeit through oddball nicknames. When the going gets tough, which it very well may against a versatile quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, who rushed for 98 yards last week and posted a 88.8 QBR, a little unity through nicknames just might be enough to overcome any adversity they face.
Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus
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