Panthers’ Ron Rivera says he can’t recall another 9-sack game

jjones@charlotteobserver.comDecember 30, 2013 

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has been in the NFL for 24 years, including 17 as a coach, and in that time he can’t recall ever being part of a nine-sack game before Sunday.

The nine sacks against the Atlanta Falcons blasted the team record of seven and gave the Panthers an NFL-high 60 for the season, tying a franchise record.

Leading the way was defensive end Greg Hardy with four. Hardy tied a team record with 15 sacks this season, matching Kevin Greene’s 1998 total.

“I was very happy for Greg,” Rivera said. “You know what’s interesting? He’s been practicing that way the last few weeks. You ask his teammates about how well he’s been practicing. It’s almost scary because he’s flying around like that on Fridays as well.”

Of the nine sacks, only three came on a blitz, something defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said is a credit to the front four.

“There’s penetration inside. There’s people coming off the edge, whether it’s Greg or Charles or Wes or Mario. Frank Alexander had a nice game,” McDermott said. “You spread it around and they’re tough to block when they’re coming off the ball as fast as they were yesterday. The coverage comes into play also. So you can’t ignore that.”

Here’s a look at all nine sacks and how they came about against the Falcons.

1st quarter

9:30 left: Rookie defensive tackle Kawann Short gets pressure up the middle and forces Matt Ryan to sidestep, then step up in the pocket. Alexander, playing at left defensive end, gets around Ryan Schraeder and hits Ryan.

7:40 left: At right defensive end, Hardy beats tight end Tony Gonzalez easily by going outside and getting to Ryan.

1:30 left: Rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei beats guard Justin Blalock and sacks Ryan with help from undrafted rookie Wes Horton, who went low on Ryan.

2nd quarter

10:26 left: The first sack with a blitz comes when cornerback Drayton Florence is the fifth rusher. Hardy, at right defensive end opposite Florence’s blitz, got past tackle Lamar Holmes on the outside to get to Ryan.

3rd quarter

4:20 left: Left defensive end Charles Johnson bull rushes Schraeder to get to Ryan easily.

3:07 left: Maybe the most impressive sack of the day comes when Hardy gets by Gonzalez, who had help in pass protection from running back Steven Jackson. Hardy pushes by Jackson as Gonzalez falls to the ground, then wraps up Ryan.

4th quarter

8:41 left: Hardy moves inside to defensive tackle. He beats center Peter Konz on the outside while strongside linebacker Thomas Davis became the fifth pass rusher on a blitz.

2:54 left: Free safety Mike Mitchell disguises his blitz so well that Jackson doesn’t pick it up. Mitchell shoots through a hole on the right side of the Falcons’ line while Jackson is already in his swing route pattern, leaving Ryan helpless as Mitchell comes in untouched.

2:28 left: Two plays later, Johnson again bull rushes Schraeder to get to Ryan for his second sack of the day and the team’s ninth.

Injury update: Steve Smith made it clear Sunday he needed the first-round playoff bye to get healthy, and his coach was optimistic Smith would be back for the Jan. 12 divisional-round game.

“I believe he’s going to be back out there, knowing Steve,” Rivera said. “It’s a challenge and he expects to be out there, and I concur just knowing who he is. He’ll do everything he can to be on that football field.”

Smith suffered a PCL sprain two weeks ago against New Orleans and has not practiced since.

Tight end Ben Hartsock re-injured his knee Sunday. Rivera said Hartsock was missed in run blocking and could have returned to the game, but the Panthers decided to sit him for the remainder of the game.

Mitchell re-injured his shoulder, but Rivera did not express concern about him.

Next season’s schedule: Carolina doesn’t know who it will play in two weeks, but the Panthers know who they’ll play in the 2014 regular season.

The opponents for next season are set, though the league won’t release the schedule until the spring. In the past that usually falls in mid-April.

The NFC South will play the AFC North and NFC North next season.

The Panthers will host Atlanta, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Seattle.

The Seahawks will travel to Carolina for a third consecutive year. It’s believed the Panthers will still face the Steelers in the preseason, as usual, despite playing Pittsburgh in the regular season.

Carolina’s away games will be at Atlanta, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Green Bay, Minnesota, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

Golden ticket: The Panthers will sell about 7,000 tickets to the general public on Jan. 1 for Carolina’s home playoff game on Jan. 12 in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

Tickets will go on sale on New Year’s Day at 10 a.m., and those interested can buy them by the phone, at a Ticketmaster office or online at ticketmaster.com. The team’s ticket store will not be open on Jan. 1, and it’s believed the tickets will be gone within the first 10 minutes of going on sale.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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