Carolina Panthers' Defensive Stars Evoke Memories of NFL Greats
When the Carolina Panthers hired Ron Rivera to be the team's head football coach in 2011, the idea was that Carolina would build a solid defense.
Not only did Rivera coach and coordinate the San Diego Chargers' top-ranked defense before landing the top job in Charlotte, he also played backup linebacker on arguably the best defense in NFL history, Buddy Ryan's legendary 1985 Chicago Bears "46 Defense," a.k.a., the new Monsters of the Midway.
I'd say Rivera and Panthers defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, along with former general manager Marty Hurney and current GM Dave Gettleman, have succeeded by drafting key players and developing an aggressive scheme that has made Carolina the NFL's No. 1-ranked scoring defense (14.7 points per game) through Week 16.
Not only are the 2013 Carolina Panthers bringing back memories of the 1985 Bears and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens with their crushing defense, but individual players are also evoking memories of great players of the past.
Luke Kuechly Is "A Young Ray Lewis"
Ron Rivera compares his second-year middle linebacker to his old teammate Mike Singletary.
SportsCenter's Stuart Scott compared him to a more recent Hall of Fame-caliber MLB, saying Luke Kuechly has the best combination of speed and quickness he seen in a player at his position since "a young Ray Lewis." Scott made the comparison at the end of ESPN's morning sports roundup show the day after Kuechly set an NFL record for most tackles in a game with 26.
Such comparisons are high praise for a player completing just his second season in the NFL, though after setting nearly every ACC and NCAA tackling record at Boston College—he would have set the collegiate career tackles record had he stayed for his senior season—and leading the NFL in tackles as a rookie, they are not far-fetched.
To say Kuechly was everywhere against the New Orleans Saints in Carolina's 17-13 Week 16 victory is an understatement. In addition to his 26 tackles, he also had one tackle for a loss, and he intercepted Drew Brees.
Simply put, Kuechly is the best tackling middle linebacker in football today.
Captain Munnerlyn Playing the Role of "Ronde Barber"
I've often said he is a solid nickel back, but he cannot cover the opposition's best receiver in one-on-one coverage. In short, he was a defensive liability on an otherwise solid unit.
Then 2013 happened, and the Panthers' defense has ascended to elite status, thanks mostly to a truly dominant front seven. However, defensive backs still have to cover receivers no matter how dominant are the line and linebackers, and Munnerlyn has played a role in solidifying his unit.
Not only has Munnerlyn proven me wrong by stepping up his play this season, but he has evoked memories of Ronde Barber in Carolina's wins over the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints in Weeks 15 and 16.
According to the Panthers' official website, Munnerlyn had only two sacks in his first 74 games, and he matched that total in his 75th career game by taking down Jets quarterback Geno Smith twice behind the line of scrimmage.
And, believe it or not, he also established a new Carolina franchise-record with his fifth career pick-six against Mark Sanchez' replacement.
Munnerlyn added a pair of well-timed sacks against Drew Brees with a corner blitz reminiscent of a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Panther nemesis, Ronde Barber, who is the only player in NFL history with more than 20 sacks (28) and 40 interceptions (47).
Despite his diminutive size, the 5'8" Munnerlyn also excelled in man coverage against New York's Santonio Holmes and the Saints' Marques Colston, and he is reducing the likelihood of the Panthers using a high pick on a cornerback in the 2014 NFL draft.
Greg Hardy Is "The Sinister of Defense?"
I do not claim to know Greg Hardy's spiritual beliefs, but I do know that he is not a nice man on NFL Sundays.
However, when "The Kraken" is at the top of his game, his style of play bears an uncanny resemblance to a former Panther preacher known as "The Minister of Defense," the late Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White.
White may have been the greatest defensive player the NFL has ever seen. Hardy has never even been selected to a Pro Bowl, though he deserves consideration after posting his second-consecutive double-digit sack season with 11.0 heading into the last game of the 2013 regular season.
The Kraken is an evil, mythical eight-armed sea monster who never releases its prey once in its grasp. An apt name for the former sixth-rounder out of Ole Miss.
Hardy, too, is a sinister beast on the gridiron.
Star Lotulelei as "Pat Williams"
There is no question that Star Lotulelei, the Carolina Panthers' No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL draft, is the most underappreciated yet most vital cog in the Panthers' front four.
The defensive rookie of the year candidate has been vital to the Panthers' defensive success in 2013.
Lotulelei has only 40 tackles and a pair of sacks through the first 15 games of the season, but his contributions as a space-eater who keeps blockers off of Kuechly have been enough to make Carolina the second-toughest team to run against in the NFL.
So, you may be asking yourself, "Who is Pat Williams?"
The former undrafted free agent may have also paved the way for Lotulelei's first-round selection by demonstrating the importance a dominant interior lineman plays in establishing an elite defense.
Thomas Davis Is "Sam Mills"
Thomas Davis may not lead the Carolina Panthers' defense in any official category kept by the team or the NFL, but he is the quiet leader of the unit that has turned this team into a Super Bowl contender.
Davis recorded 14 tackles in Week 16 against the Saints—his second-best total of the season—and added a game-changing interception late in the first half which led directly to DeAngelo Williams' 43-yard touchdown run on the ensuing play.
Davis, whose well-chronicled, surgery-riddled right knee has earned him the reputation of being one of the most resilient players in NFL history, is the heart of the franchise, and it is fitting that he became the first active player to ever "pound the drum" before a Panthers home game.
Sam Mills coined the Panthers' motto "Keep Pounding," but that's all that Thomas Davis does.
Follow Jimmy Grappone on Twitter for Game Day discussion @JimmyGrappone and @CLTSportHub.
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