By Ted Fleming
It has become the signature game for the Panthers under Ron Rivera. For the first time this season the offense looked like they could do no wrong putting 38 points on the board, but it was the defense that made Rivera proud even though the media somehow overlooked them in a 38-0 blowout of the New York Football Giants.
“You like to say we deserve a little bit more attention,” said coach Rivera. “But that’s alright. Believe me, I’ve got no problem flying under the radar. To me the more important thing is how our players feel about themselves.”
The focus was more on the Giants collapse rather than the dominating performance turned in by the defense, sacking Eli Manning seven times while limiting the offense to 60 yards rushing and just 150 of total offense.
Rivera knows a thing or two about defense. The San Diego Chargers were number one in the league when he left to take the top job in Carolina and since his arrival the Panthers are now a force to be reckoned with even though they are still sorting out playing time at certain positions.
While it is too early, three games into the season, to fairly critique the work-in-progress offense, there is enough information about the other side of the ball to hand out the Panthers Studs and Duds so far.
Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson – Defensive Ends
This dynamic duo is arguably the best in the division and may be the best outside tandem overall. Some day one or both could lead the league in sacks, but for now they force quarterbacks to have their heads on a swivel.
Hardy is fresh off capturing the NFC Defensive Player of the Week, the first Panthers DE to win it since 2008 (Julius Peppers). He did not have a sack coming into the Giants game, but broke out with three. It is no fluke because he had a career best 11.0 a year ago. At 25, he is a star in the making.
Johnson, on the other hand, is a young veteran at 27 and had an impressive résumé even before he stepped on the field this season. A third round pick by the Panthers out of Georgia in 2007, Johnson has dropped the quarterback twice so far giving him a career total of 45 which include seasons of 11.5 (2010) and a team-leading 12.5 last year.
Luke Kuechly – Middle Linebacker
The tackling machine out of Boston College may have taken a “day off” against the Giants – he had just six tackles and no sacks – but has a team best 29 (14 solo) through the first three contests including a pass defensed and a sack. Last year he took over at his more natural middle linebacker position when Jon Beason was injured and has now claimed it as his own. The 22-year-old Cincinnati native plays with a motor that does not stop and seems to be everywhere at once. He has not rested on his rookie laurels and is a key cog in the Panthers defense.
Jon Beason – Linebacker
The seven-year pro out of Miami has been effectively missing in action since signing a six-year, $51.338 million deal with incentives on July 30, 2011. He played in one game that year, four in 2012 and while he has seen action in all three games this season, he was in for just one snap when the Panthers chopped down the Giants. He was replaced by Chase Blackburn who played well.
A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Beason fell out of favor with the staff with a lackluster performance against the Bills, especially down the stretch when Buffalo marched down the field and pulled out a win in the final seconds in Week 2. He did not look good and there are questions about his health, now and long term. His contract can void after the season and his days in Carolina could be numbered.
Before there was Luke Kuechly, Beason was the king of tackles on the Panthers with 540 in his first four seasons, 417 of them solo. If this is truly the beginning of the end, the 28 year old will go down as one of the best in franchise history.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.