Analysis: With sacks and picks piling up, is this Panthers defense the NFL’s best?

Analysis: With sacks and picks piling up, is this Panthers defense the NFL’s best?
Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry, center, and his defensive teammates, celebrate Bradberry’s interception, one of five they had in Carolinas win Sunday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London. (Source: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer)

LONDON (Brendan Marks/Charlotte Observer) - A spectacular stadium, and a performance worthy of it.

Sunday, the Carolina Panthers made their long-awaited international debut when they played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.

Carolina was one of the last three teams to play in England. But in a state-of-the-art stadium designed in part to host professional (American) football — the NFL helped fund construction, after all — the Panthers put on a show.

And that’s especially true for their defense.

For the second week in a row, Carolina was a turnover-forcing machine, intercepting Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston five times and recovering his fumble as well. That doesn’t include Carolina’s six sacks in the first half alone, which tied a franchise record for sacks in the first half.

But arguably the most important defensive statistic? Carolina scored 20 points off turnovers Sunday, and now leads the NFL in that category with 54 through six games.

There are more games to be played in Week 6, but regardless if that stat stands, it validates that Carolina’s defense is clearly in the league’s upper echelon.

Is it the best? Perhaps.

As of this writing, the Panthers are 11th in the league in yards and point allowed, but their other metrics are more subtantial. Carolina’s nine interceptions are second only to the New England Patriots, and its 27 sacks lead the league. Six fumble recoveries also ties for best in the NFL.

“Guys caught the ball, guys knocked the ball out, guys fell on the ball,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said after Carolina’s 37-26 win. “We’ve showed in spurts what this defense is capable of.”

Takeaways and sacks are one part of that, but the primo field position the defense is delivering is just as crucial. For example, three of Winston’s interceptions gave the ball back to quarterback Kyle Allen and Carolina’s offense within 36 yards or fewer of the end zone.

No wonder the Panthers scored 37 points despite on only 268 offensive yards.

“That’s what you need,” coach Ron Rivera said. “If you’re going to take the ball away, hopefully it’s in a good place that helps set up the offense, and we had several of those today.”

As for how Carolina was able to tie a franchise record with seven takeaways — six were defensive, and the seventh was the recovering of a muffed punt — things started early.

Like, first play of the game early.

Winston dropped back to pass on the Bucs’ opening snap and threw toward receiver Mike Evans, who was double-covered. Cornerback James Bradberry simply jumped the route, and with better positioning on the play, was able to wrestle the ball away from Evans. Despite Carolina losing yards the subsequent three plays and settling for a Joey Slye field goal, Bradberry’s play set the day in motion.

“It was a good tempo-setter,” Rivera said. “James has had a tremendous year so far, and he continues to do the things that we need him to do ... Just really happy with his performance today.”

On Tampa Bay’s third offensive possession, Carolina’s front seven started converting on its pressure. On first-and-10 from midfield, defensive tackle Vernon Butler Jr. — filling in for Kawann Short, who is out for the year with a shoulder injury — shoved the Bucs guard across from him straight into the backfield, forcing Winston to step up in the pocket — and right into Gerald McCoy. It was McCoy’s first sack of the year, and considering it came against his former team, he glared at Tampa Bay’s sideline right after.

The very next play was more of the same. The Bucs took a timeout to collect themselves, but defensive tackle Dontari Poe got in on Winston for a second consecutive sack.

“The biggest thing that was helping (generate interior pressure) was the vertical rush on the outside. They were getting up and forcing Jameis to step up inside,” Rivera said. “I thought the coverage initially did a really nice job in terms of taking away his quick throws, and forcing him to step up and hold the ball a little bit longer, which gave the interior guys a chance to get their hands on him.”

But the outside rushers would have their time, too. With about 10 minutes left before the half, defensive end/outside linebacker Bruce Irvin came screaming off the left edge at Winston. He didn’t get there in time for the sack, but that worked out to Carolina’s advantage: Irvin slapped Winston’s elbow as he threw, re-directing the pass to nickel cornerback Javien Elliott, another ex-Buc.

The pressure only grew from there. Shortly before halftime, Butler had back-to-back strip sacks (he had not recorded three sacks total the previous three seasons), the latter of which was recovered by Irvin. Efe Obada, who grew up in London and was named an honorary captain for Sunday’s game, also helped create the pressure with Butler.

“G2X (a defensive motto for getting to the spot), y’all call them Sackstreet Boys,” safety Tre Boston said. “Those boys were getting after him all day.”

And finally, it wouldn’t be a well-rounded Panthers defensive effort without linebacker Luke Kuechly’s impact, right? Kuechly picked Winston for the third time of the afternoon, a ‘Where was he looking?’ sort of play with no obvious receivers or routes in the vicinity.

After Kuechly returned the pick to Tampa Bay’s eight-yard line, receiver Curtis Samuel took the very next play into the end zone on a reverse. That score made for 10 points in the span of 16 seconds, and all but sealed the game for Carolina, putting it ahead 27-7.

Despite excelling through the first three quarters, the Panthers defense did sag some in the fourth. The Bucs went on back-to-back 75-yard drives to cut the deficit to 11, including two-point conversions on both possessions. Winston was able to find Evans and Chris Godwin, the other half of Tampa Bay’s two-headed monster at receiver, with some consistency, and the Bucs moved the ball downfield almost seamlessly.

Still, when it needed to, the Panthers defense again came up big. With less than 3 minutes to play in the game, Bradberry and Ross Cockrell came up with back-to-back pass breakups against Evans, which forced a Tampa Bay fourth-and-10 deep in their own territory.

Winston looked right to Godwin, threw ... and Cockrell plucked the ball out of the air right over the receiver’s head.

All total, four different Panthers recorded interceptions on Sunday.

“I was a little upset. I had a couple out there that they tipped, I wanted those,” Boston joked postgame. “I wanted to join the group. Everybody was stealing and I was like, ‘I ain’t catch my misdemeanor yet.’ I’m like, I’m trying to steal, too! I’m looking around like, whose pockets can I get in? Because the boys did their thing today.”

Finally, after a missed Slye field goal, Winston and Tampa Bay’s offense got the ball one final time. And fittingly, the game ended just as it began: With James Bradberry intercepting, only this time in the end zone to officially wrap up Carolina’s fourth straight win.

“Seven sacks, is that what it was?” Boston said. “What is it, seven turnovers? Five interceptions?

“I mean, you can’t write it up better than that.”