CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers rank fourth in total defense and first in interceptions. They're tied for third in sacks and fifth in points allowed. They lead the league in takeaway-giveaway margin at 13, with the defense forcing a league-best 25 turnovers.
They've done this without Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who will be on the opposite sideline for the Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas.
The numbers are comparable to where the Panthers were in 2013 when they ranked second in total defense en route to a 12-4 regular-season record.
Hardy got a lot of credit that season with a career-best 15 sacks. His ability to disrupt quarterbacks as an end and tackle, as well as drop into coverage, was a huge part of the success.
So how have the Panthers (10-0) succeeded without Hardy? Here are five reasons:
Sean McDermott: The Panthers are headed for their fourth straight year as a top-10 defense. The defensive coordinator deserves much of the credit. McDermott's ability to create schemes to pressure the quarterback with whoever is on the field has been key. This defense is not predicated on one player, as McDermott proved earlier this season when the Panthers went 3-0 without Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. The unit has 24 sacks in its seven games without end Charles Johnson, who is returning this week from injured reserve. Last year was a challenge early, after Hardy was placed on the commissioner's exempt list prior to the third game. McDermott had spent the entire offseason and training camp preparing with Hardy and ultimately needed three players to replace all that Hardy could do. But McDermott eventually found the right mix and his defense rocketed to 10th in the league by season's end after being as low as 28th. Look for McDermott to be among the prospects for a head-coaching job after this season.
Dave Gettleman: The general manager made the call to draft defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the first two rounds in 2013. Gettleman was questioned for not going after more immediate needs with the second-round pick. Three seasons later, Short appears headed for the Pro Bowl. Gettleman believes in building from the inside out. It's the formula he learned with the New York Giants in helping them win two Super Bowls. He doesn't panic and trade the house when a player is injured. He's also not afraid to make a move like he did in acquiring end Jared Allen from Chicago after Johnson's injury. Gettleman also has been smart in spending in the secondary without breaking the bank. The offseason addition of safety Kurt Coleman and cornerback Charles Tillman at bargain prices is paying big dividends.
Marty Hurney: The former general manager who was fired during the 2012 season also deserves credit here. He selected outside linebacker Thomas Davis in the first round of the 2005 draft and middle linebacker Kuechly in the first-round of the 2012 draft. They are the heart and soul of this defense. Hurney may have overpaid Johnson (six years, $72 million in 2011), but he also made a good move drafting Johnson, who ranks second on Carolina's all-time sack list, in the third round. Hurney selected cornerback Josh Norman in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. Norman has developed into one of the league's best at his position. For all the grief Hurney took for putting Carolina in salary-cap hell, he played a significant role in building the core of this defense.
Kuechly and Davis: As McDermott will tell you, his job is a lot easier with these two linebackers. They cover up for a lot of mistakes with their speed, athletic ability and football prowess. When opposing coaches are asked about the Carolina defense, they typically begin with this pair. It goes beyond their stats, although their statistics are impressive. They have been the top two tacklers on the team since 2012. Their leadership holds this unit together when things aren't going well in a game and during the season.
Kony Ealy: The defensive end really is tied to what was said above about Gettleman and McDermott. Gettleman selected the former Missouri star in the second round of the 2014 draft. He had a first-round grade on Ealy, even though some of the so-called draft experts thought the second round might be too high. McDermott had to break Ealy down early and patiently build him into the player he has become. Ealy has a sack in each of the past four games. His ability to play end and tackle is beginning to draw comparisons to Hardy, although he's not there yet. But Ealy is playing so well that he deserves serious consideration to remain a starter with Johnson returning, although odds are Johnson and Allen will get the nod.