After an 0-2 start, the Carolina Panthers have won four straight and five of six to improve to 5-3 and pull within one game of the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South lead.
With 2013 NFL regular season officially halfway over, Panthers 101 is dishing out its midseason report card.
Today, the defensive line and linebackers get their marks on the midterm:
Defensive Line Evaluation: You'll have a tough time finding a better front four than Carolina's. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are an elite tandem at defensive end. The two bookends have combined for 49 tackles and 12 sacks on the season.
However, the biggest difference for Sean McDermott's defense has been the meat in the middle. The addition of rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short – the Panthers' first two draft picks – has filled a glaring hole (pun intended) at defensive tackle this season. The two young space-eaters have helped elevate last year's league's 14th best run defense into the NFL's second-ranked unit halfway through this season.
Barring any injuries, this talented group should continue to win battles in the trenches down the stretch – even against tougher opponents.
Linebacker Evaluation: It was sad to see the Panthers lose longtime middle linebacker and defensive anchor Jon Beason to a trade with the New York Giants early in the season. The writing was on the wall for the injury-riddled Beason when the team drafted Luke Kuechly ninth overall in the 2012 draft.
But Kuechly has quickly emerged as an elite NFL linebacker and the unequivocal leader on defense, making Beason's tenure seem like a distant memory in Carolina. Last year's NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year currently leads the team in tackles with 64 and, along with Mike Mitchell, interceptions with three.
Additionally, strong-side linebacker Thomas Davis' return from three ACL tears has been nothing short of extraordinary. The veteran currently has 61 tackles and three sacks halfway through the season.
Chase Blackburn, who took over for Beason at weak-side linebacker, has been adequate but not spectacular. He's been solid against the run, but struggles at times in pass coverage.
Overall, the linebackers have been excellent. This group is a big reason why the Panthers have the league's number three defense.
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