CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Linebacker Thomas Davis was explaining how he got two sacks in Sunday's 35-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, giving all the credit to Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott for putting him in the right position.
"You don't have to say that because I'm standing here," shouted McDermott, about 15 feet away.
Thomas continued to wax eloquent on the 39-year-old coach as he dressed in the visitors locker room at the Minneapolis Metrodome.
"He's a defensive guru," he said.
"I heard that," McDermott said. "You don't have to say that, man."
Davis turned to his coach and replied, "Listen to me. I'm not saying this because you're right there."
He meant it. And if you ask anyone else on the NFL's third-ranked defense, he will give credit to McDermott and his staff as well.
"A beast," end Greg Hardy said when asked to describe McDermott.
If you know Hardy, that is the ultimate compliment. It's the same praise he gave to Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, whom he considers the best running back in the league.
Hardy also referred to McDermott as the "offensive coordinator of the No. 3 defense in the NFL," an apt description because offensive coordinators typically are given more credit for calling plays and designing schemes.
McDermott shies away from such attention. When reminded Davis called him brilliant after the defense held Peterson to a season-low 62 yards, he looked the other way and said, "Next question." Asked to describe his style, he said, "Just one of the coaches."
"My philosophy is our philosophy," said McDermott, focused on Sunday's home game against the St. Louis Rams. "The team comes first. Not one person is more important than the other."
But McDermott has been important in putting it all together. In under three years he has taken the Panthers (2-3) from 28th in total defense to 10th last season to third this year (allowing 299.2 yards a game) -- their highest ranking in total defense since the 2002 team finished the season second. The Panthers also are second in scoring defense (13.6 PPG), fourth in red zone touchdown percentage (36.4 percent) and fifth in takeaways per game (2.2).
So who is the architect? McDermott spent most of his formative coaching years working under defensive coordinator Jim Johnson at Philadelphia. He actually replaced Johnson in 2009 and 2010 after his mentor passed away.
Johnson was a risk-taker, a shoot-from-the-hip playcaller who lived and died by the blitz.
McDermott, with some help from head coach Ron Rivera, himself a former defensive coordinator, is developing his own style. Rivera calls him "intelligently aggressive."
"Probably situational aggressive is a better way to put it," Rivera said. "He's really matured a lot in the two and a half seasons we've been here. The defensive guys have started to understand the complexities of what we are trying to do."
Players don't consider the system complex as much as thorough. They say it's really a simple system built around timely blitzes and playmakers making plays instead of elaborate blitzes like Johnson used.
"We like to be an aggressive defense and a fundamentally sound defense at the same time," McDermott said.
What has made this year's version improved is most of the players have two or three years in the system and they've bought into it wholeheartedly. They can make adjustments with a simple look at a teammate that didn't happen a year ago.
That has allowed McDermott to add more layers to the package.
"He does a good job of catering to what we do well," said middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012. "He doesn't do stuff that schematically looks good if it doesn't fit his personnel."
Said strong safety Mike Mitchell, "His main strength is his game plan, the way he puts them together so that I can understand or we can understand it as a defense. He's been one of the best I've ever had at that."
McDermott also brings a passion to this unit. In many ways he's a player wearing a coach's cap, often dressing in the locker room next to his guys like he did at Minnesota.
"He coaches like he encourages us to play, with all your heart and [give] everything for the next guy down the line," Hardy said. "That's how you stay productive."
The players want to improve to the point they're spending extra time studying film and talking to each other.
So how much better can they be?
"Two spots better," Hardy said. "We're going to keep climbing. We're hungry because Coach McDermott has put us in that mindset."