CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Linebacker Bruce Irvin was about to disappear for the bye weekend when told the Carolina Panthers with 27 sacks, an average of 4.5 sacks a game, are on pace to tie the NFL single-season record of 72 set by the 1984 Chicago Bears.
“Seventy-two?" Irvin said with a smile. “We can get to 72."
That would be a remarkable turnaround for a unit that finished 27th in the league with 35 sacks in 2018.
And it didn’t happen by accident.
It began with head coach Ron Rivera, who is more than familiar with what pressuring the quarterback means to a defense. He was a rookie with the 1984 Bears, who recorded an incredible 136 sacks in a two-year span under defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan and his famous 46 scheme.
That group, which won the Super Bowl in 1985, brought back the “Monsters of the Midway" nickname originally given to the 1940-41 Chicago defense.
Rivera is creating his own version of that with a mixture of schemes and pressures he learned from Ryan, former Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith.
“A lot of it has been influenced by those three,” Rivera said.
The blend of 3-4, 4-3, Tampa 2 and even a tad of Ryan’s 46 has created 27 sacks, including seven in Carolina’s last outing against Tampa Bay and 24 during a four-game winning streak after an 0-2 start.
The process began late last season, when Rivera took over the playcalling. It continued during the offseason when he began a transition from a base 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, believing the defense had become somewhat predictable and stagnant after eight seasons.
The Panthers already have used 10 personnel groupings compared to six all of last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. They have gone with three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs 30.9% of the time, compared to 7.25% in 2018, when they used four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs 54.5% of the time.
To do this, Carolina had to add more speed, with players such as free agent Irvin and first-round pick Brian Burns to play outside linebacker and end, and Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy to play tackle and end.
It took a few games to mesh, but now that it has, the defense has become fun to watch. Almost as fun as watching Christian McCaffrey gain all those yards on offense.
“I can guarantee you it’s lot more fun for us on the field,” Irvin said.
'A great concept'
Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary was considered the heart and soul of the Bears' defense in much the way Luke Kuechly is for Carolina. Both are leaders and are solid against the run and in coverage.
Singletary doesn’t get into comparing past schemes with current ones, but does see one common trait between the ’84 Bears and 2019 Panthers beyond stopping the run and getting sacks.
“They’re having fun,” said Singletary, who is head coach of Trinity Christian Academy in Addison, Texas.
Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, who made the Tampa 2 scheme popular while coaching the Buccaneers and is now an analyst for NBC’s "Sunday Night Football," sees the same thing.
“I love watching good defenses, and I’ve loved watching them this year,” he said. “What they’ve done is impressive.”
Former NFL defensive guru Rex Ryan, now an analyst for ESPN and Buddy Ryan’s son, isn’t ready to compare Carolina to his dad’s units that arguably were the best ever.
“That defense whipped you before you played them,” Ryan said of those Bears teams. “I mean, you were scared to death of that defense. ... But anytime you start to get compared to those great defenses, that’s a helluva sign for you.”
Like the ’84 Bears, the Panthers are unpredictable.
Case in point: On Kuechly’s third-quarter interception against the Bucs, the formation was close to Ryan’s 46 with three down linemen, two outside linebackers and safety up front.
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When defensive tackle/end Vernon Butler had consecutive strip sacks in the second quarter, Carolina had three down linemen and two outside linebackers up front on the first and four down linemen with one outside linebacker on the second.
“They’re more multiple than they’ve been,” Ryan said. “That makes it a lot harder to defend, but you better have a helluva lot better players than the opponent you’re facing if that’s going to be your mindset.”
That is Rivera’s mindset. That most of his players up front play multiple positions helps in that he’s able to keep quarterbacks and offensive linemen guessing.
“That gives teams a lot more to prepare for,” Singletary said. “It spreads them thin, because it’s not that much time in the week to work on everything.
“It’s a great concept. It has a chance to be special.”
Starts up front
Singletary has one thought every time he sees McCoy line up for the Panthers.
“What in the world was Tampa Bay thinking?” he said of the Bucs, who released the 31-year-old with 57 career sacks.
For Rivera, what the Bears did when he was a player and what the Panthers are doing now starts in the middle. He might not have Richard Dent, Steve McMichael and Dan Hampton, but he’s getting the most out of McCoy, Dontari Poe, Butler, Kyle Love, Mario Addison and others.
Addison, a player Ryan calls one of the most underrated in the league, is on pace for a career year with 6.5 sacks. Butler, who was inactive the first two games, has three sacks after having only two in his first three seasons. Burns, the 16th pick of the draft, has 4.5 sacks. Twelve players have half a sack or more.
“It’s not just one guy who has 10 sacks,” Ryan said. “They’re feeding off each other.”
It all starts with the inside push that is allowing the speed off the edge to have an impact.
“Their front four is playing well, and that allows that back seven to flow and do things,” Dungy said.
The Panthers had five interceptions against Tampa Bay largely because of pressure. They have nine on the season after having only 13 last season. They also have six fumble recoveries after having only nine in 2018.
“When you turn the dogs loose, you might as well call the police because the thieves are coming right with them,” said free safety Tre Boston, using the nickname he has for the secondary. “Right now, we’re thieving at an all-time high.”
The ’84 Bears had only 16 sacks after six games, and then had 56 in the final 10, including 12 in the finale.
So while the Panthers are ahead of that pace, they have a lot of work to do to reach 72. They also have things to shore up.
According to ESPN pass-rush metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, the Panthers rank 21st in pass-rush win rate, beating their blocks within 2.5 seconds 41% of the time.
The defense also has been on the field for 418 snaps, tied with Kansas City for most in the league entering the weekend.
The Bears ranked third in the NFL in ’84 and first in ’85. Carolina entered the weekend 11th.
“It’s a defense that’s kind of flying under the radar,” Ryan said of the Panthers. “Everybody is talking about the Niners and Patriots and Bears, but Carolina is right there with them.
“[Rivera’s] got to challenge them to be the best defense this year, not the best defense of all time. That’ll be a helluva accomplishment.”