Ever since the Carolina Panthers lost defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu late in the 2008 season, the team has been searching for a run-stuffer to secure the middle of their defense. There have been many contenders, but none have stuck in the last half-decade.
To shore up the defensive line, the Panthers doubled up on tackles in the first two rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft, taking Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Both players have showed some promise: Short as a good pass rusher and Star complimenting him as an unmovable run-stuffer. On Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, both players played maybe their best games of the season, Lotulelei in particular.
Pro Football Focus gave the former Utah standout a grade of 4.1, the third highest mark given out to a defensive tackle in Week 7. What was so impressive about Lotulelei's performance was the versatility: We know just how good of a run stopper he is, but he spent a considerable amount of time disrupting Sam Bradford's pocket and hurrying the Rams quarterback into tough throws (including Captain Munnerlyn's interception). Pro Football Focus credited the big man with 3 quarterback pressures, impressive for a man usually left on the sideline in passing situations.
Lotulelei dominated against the run, notching three tackles for loss and six tackles total. And on those 6 tackles, the Rams gained only 2 yards.
On Sunday, Star spent the majority of the game in the B Gap between the offenses' guard and tackle (also known as the three-technique):
After blowing up a couple of run plays and getting some good penetration on passes, the Rams started to double him, which allowed others to make plays. Take the following play for example. Star pushes the double team back and forces the running back into the arms of Charles Johnson for no gain:
But Lotulelei isn't all just brute strength. He showed off his athleticism on a couple of plays where he chased down running backs from behind:
The only complaint about Star's game at this point is his lack of a go-to pass rush move. So far, Star has relied on his strength to beat blockers, which leads to too many plays like this:
If he could add a move or two over the remainder of the season and in the off-season, he could have a Geno Atkins-type breakout in Year 2.
What to make of these blowouts?
Anyone familiar with advanced metrics in sports knows that a team's record in close games is inconsistent from year-to-year. Good teams aren't necessarily better at winning close games than bad teams. Where the good teams consistently thrive is in blowouts.
The Panthers, who have been hard to peg as a good or bad team, have won their three games in convincing fashion, so what should we make of that?
In the last 20 seasons, 39 NFL teams have won three games in their first six by at least 15 points, according to Pro-Football Reference's Game Finder. Of those teams, 90 percent have made the playoffs. And only four of those teams missed the playoffs: The 1994 Seahawks, 1996 Lions, 2003 Buccaneers and 2010 Titans.
The last time the Panthers accomplished the feat was in 1996 when the Panthers went to the franchise's first NFC Championship.
Does that mean the Panthers are a shoo-in for January football? No, but it's still encouraging.
Mike Shula Does Something Good
A lot of people might be fooled by the 30 points the Panthers put up and Cam Newton's good numbers, but Carolina's offensive performance was largely disappointing.
Take away the defensive touchdown and the Panthers scored only 23 points at home against one of the worst defenses in the league.
Newton was efficient but didn't attempt a pass of 20 yards or more. The running game got over 100 yards but it took 38 carries -- take out the 30 yards on four Read Option plays and that number looks even worse.
But the Panthers won, so let's not focus on the negatives and give Shula some credit.
After a Panthers' drive that ended in Steve Smith's touchdown and featured several Read Option plays, Shula called for a 'Wham' play meant to look like the Read Option and slow down the Rams defense:
Jordan Gross leaves Rams end Robert Quinn unblocked, which keys the linebackers to the Option. Greg Olsen comes from the other side of the formation and wham blocks Quinn; Newton hands the ball off to DeAngelo Williams on the outside zone run; and the Rams linebackers are left frozen because they have to account for the possibility of Newton keeping the ball. This allows Williams the time to get outside and pick up 12 yard:
Now you can go back to criticizing Shula, as he deserves.