Last season, Carolina drafted Luke Kuechly, who's currently one of the best inside linebackers in the league. This year it was defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. While he isn't even the full-time starter yet, every indication says he's going to be an absolute world-breaker, if he isn't already.
The past few seasons, your sweet old grandmother could have run up the middle against the Panthers interior linemen. Carolina runs a 4-3 defense, meaning each defensive tackle is responsible for fewer gaps, but Sione Fua and Dwan Edwards—combined with backups like Ron Edwards and Andre Neblett—capped out at average on their good days, and far below it on most others. And as a result, the Panthers' actually talented defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson suffered. The whole defensive line was a wreck.
Enter the Death Star. Though he's still in a rotation at his position, Lotulelei doesn't look like a rookie when he's on the field. Listed at six-foot-two and 315 pounds, Lotulelei is built like a 4-3 nose tackle, but he plays like a much heavier 3-4 nose tackle. Think Jets nose tackle Damon Harrison if he moved around like Warren Sapp. Like Harrison, Lotulelei is an absolute monolith against the run. As a team, the Panthers are allowing just 80.2 rushing yards per game this year, after allowing 110 on 4.2 per carry last season, and a lot of that is Lotulelei. He has recorded 27 run "stops," tied for fifth-most among defensive tackles, and according to Pro Football Focus he has the highest run stop percentage among defensive tackles in the league—even higher than Harrison—with 13.5% of runs against him stopped for a "loss" (this is situational, and not necessarily a loss of yardage). He's somehow outperforming players with 30 or more pounds on him.
He can rush the passer too. While we obviously shouldn't put him at the same level as Sapp just yet, his abilities working out of a 4-3 can be reminiscent of the Hall of Famer. Lotulelei frequently draws two linemen to block him, and he can also break down the pocket, even though his stats only reflect him as having two sacks on the season. His ability to rush the passer has earned him four quarterback hits and 13 hurries, which are middle of the pack numbers, but impressive when you see the attention he gets.
Let's look at him in this week's bloodbath against Tampa Bay. With star defensive end Charles Johnson out for the game against Tampa Bay, Ron Rivera rotated in Mario Addison and Frank Alexander at the position, while Dwan Edwards and Lotulelei were mixed at DT. Even within a zone-blocking scheme, the Bucs chose to frequently double up Lotulelei, and when they didn't, at least had a second lineman bump him on the way to his assignment. Largely though, Tampa Bay just did its best to run the ball away from Lotulelei, which drew some success as Bobby Rainey picked up a few chunks of yards and first downs. Not here, though:
Lotulelei sheer strength and tackling ability are on display here. Watch as he's doubled up for a second before going one-on-one with guard Jamon Meredith. Lotulelei actually moves the double team onto its heels on his own, into the backfield, and then once Rainey tries to burst through the hole, finds a way to peel off and drag him down with one hand, holding him to a two-yard gain. This is a preposterous play.
That ability to tackle while being blocked wasn't a fluke. Check out the Rams' second offensive play in Week 7, where Lotulelei takes down running back Zac Stacy while being blocked by Joe Barksdale. He doesn't just come off the block, he moves the blocker into position to where he can dump off Barksdale and move right into the tackle. He is a fucking beast.
The rookie's talent at breaking the pocket when single-blocked can indirectly lead to turnovers, too. Watch Lotulelei flip six-foot-nine tackle Demar Dotson over as if he's a small child and proceed to chase down Mike Glennon. He doesn't get the sack, but pressures the typically risk-averse rookie quarterback into throwing a deep ball for Vincent Jackson that was picked off by Mike Mitchell. (An aside: This was on second down and 1. Glennon could have scrambled left to net the first down or just thrown it away and set up a third and short. Instead, he throws it deep. That needs work.)
Lotulelei's teammates have also benefited from his presence. Defensive end Greg Hardy's probably falling short of his 50-sack goal, but his seven sacks don't tell the whole story. Along with 11 sacks, Hardy totaled 35 quarterback hurries and 12 hits in 2012, per Pro Football Focus. In 12 games this season, he's hit the quarterback 16 times and hurried him 32 times. Similar to Harrison, Lotulelei's acting as a big enough obstruction that his defensive ends have more chances to hassle the quarterback. At the very least, Hardy's getting his opportunities to reach 50.
We have less of a grasp on tracking the improvement of the handsomely paid Charles Johnson, who's missed the past two games with a knee sprain. Johnson had been putting up consistent numbers, with 8.5 sacks, seven hits and 34 hurries in 10 games in 2013. Last season, Johnson racked up 12.5 sacks, 11 hits and 49 hurries, along with seven forced fumbles. Johnson should be back for a crucial divisional game against the Saints, so there's hope yet that he'll reach or surpass his totals from last season. But it's very safe to say that Star's success hasn't come at the expense of Johnson.
Lotulelei's been the savior to a Panthers' defensive line that had been a sad state of affairs in the past two seasons. In 2011, it puked up a league-worst 4.98 yards to running backs, according to Football Outsiders, and gave up 1.47 second-level yards, second-worst in the league. Carolina gave up the second-most adjusted yards on runs up the middle. In 2012, after Kuechly came to tune up the linebacker depth chart, the second-level yardage decreased, but it and the yards allowed per carry were still in the bottom half of the league. Runs up the middle against Carolina's d-line still resulted in juicy gains.
This season, the Panthers' line has played at a top-10 level, allowing under 3.5 adjusted line yards per carry and ranking as the sixth-best run-stuffing team. And not only that, but the runs up the middle that were killing the Panthers the past few years now seem to be a strength that Carolina is using to its advantage. Check out the third chart down on Football Outsiders's defensive line breakdown. Among elite run defenses, only Carolina actively seems to encourage runs up the middle, with 73 percent of opponent rushes coming there—the highest figure in the league. And once they get there, they meet Star, and get sat down.
Of course, the excellent play of a defensive line snowballs and improves the play of linebackers and defensive backs. The less time for the offense, the better. Per FO, the Panthers are currently the second-best team defense by DVOA. The pass defense was decent last season, but it's improved even further with no drastic roster changes.
There doesn't seem to be any effective way of nullifying Lotulelei, short of waiting for him to come off the field. You can try running away from him, but the Panthers don't really allow you to do that schematically. Which isn't to short-shrift the rest of the defense: Johnson and Hardy are two formidable parts of an incredibly stout Carolina front seven, and Kuechly is one of the best in the NFL. There's a reason that this defense has allowed a league-low 13.1 points per game.
The past two seasons have had flashes of excellence amid the sputtering—and a lot of the attention then and now has centered around Cam Newton—but this year, it seems like everything's running in harmony for Analytical Ron and his crew, and the defense is out in front of the reasons why.
Photo: Bill Wippert/AP