Youth being served on Panthers defense

The rookies led the way in the best performance by Carolina’s D in a year

Defensive end Brian Burns and the Panthers defense helped lead Carolina on Sunday to its first win of the Matt Rhule era. (Alex Gallardo / AP Photo)

There were plenty of bright spots in the Panthers’ win over the Chargers last weekend. Obviously, breaking through with the season’s first victory, as well as the first win of coach Matt Rhule’s NFL career, are significant.

The most encouraging development, however, might have been the arrival of the Carolina Panthers defense.

A weak spot last year and identified early as the Achilles’ heel on this year’s team, the Panthers’ D showed signs of improvement. Carolina held Los Angeles to 15 points, ending a team-record 14-game streak of giving up 20 or more points. The Panthers had given up at least 20 in 17 of the last 18 outings and had been tagged for 30-plus in their last six.

The defense had four takeaways, matching its total for the last 10 games. Brian Burns helped lead the way with a strip-sack on the Chargers’ second drive. The Panthers also recorded their first sacks of the season in the game after getting shut out rushing the quarterback in the first two outings.

“We hit him, he left the game, he came right back,” Rhule said of Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. “But I thought we were able to get on edges. Our guys took the challenge seriously. Like I said to you guys, we’re getting better. It’s week three of figuring out exactly who we are and how we do things. I thought guys took that to heart. We ran some more pressures. We are putting a little bit more in each week, and we were able to get there with some pressures. It wasn’t perfect, but I thought the pressure allowed us to be in the game.”

Burns’ performance, after an up-and-down rookie campaign, gave rise to the possibility that he could be one of the building blocks for a young defense.

“I’ll tell you, nobody will ever understand the struggles of getting close to the quarterback besides defensive ends or defensive tackles,” he said. “Today, I honestly still left a lot of sacks out there. I have to get on the drawing board and finish those sacks and capitalize. It was great to get that monkey off my back and finally get one.”

It was nice to be the veteran, instead of the rookie struggling to find his way.

“Honestly, guys came to rush,” Burns said. “That’s how I see it. Guys knew we had a rookie quarterback. He did a good job, but when you have a rookie quarterback, you have to get in his face and affect him and that can ultimately be a deciding factor in the game. So going into this week, the preparation was get after the quarterback, get after the quarterback, perfect our moves.”

The other promising newcomer on a defense loaded with them was linebacker Jeremy Chinn. The rookie had 12 tackles, and the only NFL player with more in Week 3 was fellow Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, who had 13.

Chinn added a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit.

“The big thing was just getting to the football,” he said. “When you get to the football, you run to the football, good things happen. That’s what happened today. There was definitely emphasis on getting to the football, 11 hats to the ball, something is bound to happen, ball is bound to get poked out or get tipped or something. The defense did a good job of doing that today.”

The Panthers gained offseason notoriety for devoting every pick in the draft to the defensive side of the ball. That decision is bearing fruit. Nearly one-third of the team’s tackles on Sunday — 24 of 76 — were made by rookies. Newbies also provided two-thirds of the team’s tackles for loss — four of six.

“Really, every day we are learning still,” Chinn said. “It’s still a whole new defense for everybody. So just continuing to learn and learn. You know, get more comfortable as the weeks go by. It’s definitely a learning process, so I’m excited to keep on and continue to get better. For the defense, you know the rest of the defense to continue to learn and play as a unit.”

First-rounder Derrick Brown had five tackles, three for loss, and jumped on the fumbled lateral that ended the game to make sure the Chargers didn’t find some way to keep the play alive.

“What a great effort by Derrick Brown,” Rhule said. “Here’s a 330-pound guy running down the field and gets the ball.”

There’s still plenty of football to play and plenty of trials by fire for the defense this season, but the kids gave a flash of what’s to come.

“Nothing like getting the first one,” Burns said “Now they can start rolling in.”