By Ted Fleming
While it is too early to believe the Panthers are firing on all cylinders, it is fair to say a giant Week 3 New York-style tune-up helped smooth out the engine problems they were experiencing. Now, with a week off to work on the dents and dings on the body, they are just about ready to take the long drive out to Arizona to see if they can race off to playoff contention.
After their late game heroics against the Buccaneers in Tampa, the Cardinals are currently where the Panthers want to be – with a .500 record. The win a week ago got them halfway there, but you can bet all eyes will be on the injury report all week long leading up to the duel in the desert.
Carolina’s secondary was in such bad shape when they hosted the Giants that they signed undrafted strong safety Robert Lester off the practice squad and made him a starter despite never having played a game in the NFL before. But the front seven did such a superb job taking away Eli Manning’s game that no one really noticed how grim things were. A 38-0 victory will do that.
You have to give head coach Ron Rivera credit because he must have known something no one else did because Lester responded with five tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery after a teammate Melvin White coughed up the ball following an INT and knocked down a sure completion at the last minute.
It has been like that for Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. The decision making has been spot on and that part of the Panthers game keeps improving, seemingly on a game by game basis. Lester is just the latest to etch his name on their long list of successes, but there is one player who has just two more games on his NFL résumé and he is already a star in more ways than one.
Star Lotulelei is a six-foot two-inch, 315-pound behemoth who was drafted by the Panthers with the 14th overall pick in the 2013 draft after a standout career at the University of Utah. He has already been promoted to “Superstar” by defensive end Greg Hardy even though he is still in the development stage of his career.
There were a number of teams that were scared off by an echocardiogram before the scouting combine that showed an abnormality in his left ventricle that fell below the normal range of 55 to 70 percent. Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman did not consider Lotulelei a risk especially when a later test gave the impression a virus could have been the cause of the initial result.
The 23-year0old South Jordan, Utah resident by way of Tonga has garnered national attention after just three games because he has jumped into the early conversation for NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year, an award won by teammate and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly last year.
Lotulelei recorded his first career sack last Sunday, one of a team record-tying seven in the blowout of the Giants, and so far he is making Gettleman’s first draft in Carolina a good one. Only time will tell if it is a great one with a Star in the making.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.