Watching Carolina Panther edge rushers Brian Burns and Haason Reddick short-circuit another offense Sunday afternoon in a 26-7 win over New Orleans gave me a deep sense of déjà vu.
Burns and Reddick are bookend terrors, crashing in on quarterbacks that have had to run for their lives for two straight games now. They are undeniably better together than apart. They have pride in their work and a bit of ego, too — enough that they have made a massive bet with each other on who’s going to have the most sacks this season.
Those last three sentences could also describe the Panthers’ best pass-rushing combination in history — Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon in 1996. For one season in the sun 25 years ago, they were the NFL’s finest sack duo. Greene led the NFL with 14.5 sacks that season, while Lathon was barely behind him at 13.5 to finish tied for No. 2 in the league.
For Reddick and Burns, their bet on sack totals is this: The loser has to buy a tricked-out golf cart for the winner to drive around training camp next year.
Reddick has had 1.5 sacks in each of Carolina’s first two games, for a total of three. Burns has had a sack in each game — and barely missed a couple more, including a strip-sack that was overturned Sunday — for a total of two. Reddick has an early one-sack lead on the golf cart wager.
“Brian got another sack today, though, so I’ve got to keep watching him,” Reddick said. “Gotta keep the lead on him.”
For Lathon and Greene, the bet was a straight $5,000. That bet stemmed from a preseason dinner the two men shared at Lathon’s house, when Greene told him: “Hey listen, Lamar buddy, I don’t mean to be rude to you in your own home. But I’m going to lead this team in sacks. I always lead my team in sacks. Everywhere. Every time.”
And Greene did, but barely, as the two combined for a staggering 28 sacks. No Panther duo has surpassed that number since in a single season.
“I paid my $5,000 and I was happy to pay it,” Lathon told me recently, when we were commiserating about Greene’s death at age 58 in December. “That was the best year I ever had.”
I don’t know that Burns and Reddick can get to 28 sacks, but they might. The 17-game schedule at least gives them one more game to try to get there. It’s early, but they’re on a combined 42.5-sack pace.
And right now the two are playing with crazy confidence on a defense that on Sunday held the Saints to the fewest total yards (128) that New Orleans and its vaunted offense has had in 20 years.
“In all honesty, the defense had a very dominant performance for the second week in a row,” Burns said after this one.
Burns and Reddick do lack one thing, though: A nickname.
Greene and Lathon christened themselves “Salt and Pepper” early on, and it stuck. I’m not sure what Reddick and Burns should call themselves: R&B, maybe? Or maybe not. I’m sure there are some more creative options right now that would look good on a T-shirt.
But somebody’s going to need to bestow a nickname on these two if they keep playing like this. Burns was already a fine player, but he’s headed toward his first double-digit sack year. Burns is seeing fewer double-teams since Reddick has arrived, straight off a 12.5-sack year at Arizona.
“We have great rushers on the field,” Burns said. “They take a lot of that attention away from me most of the time. And when I can depend on somebody else to get pressure, it messes up their protection.”
The Panthers rattled New Orleans quarterback Jameis Winston, who could only get his team to six first downs (the fewest ever in the Sean Payton era) and threw two interceptions.
“I have to communicate better,” Winston said when asked about the pass rush. “I have to be louder. Our first time on the road. Definitely have to be able to use my voice to communicate to the offensive linemen.”
Burns and Reddick are only part of this defensive solution. They are getting sacks and pressures because the coverage has been better, and the rush defense has been startling in its completeness. The New York Jets ran for only 45 yards in Week 1; New Orleans only had 28, with Alvin Kamara only gaining five yards on his eight attempts.
That means opponents are facing a lot of third-and-10s, which lets Burns and Reddick do their thing.
It was the same way in 1996, when Carolina’s run defense was strong behind linebacker Sam Mills and Greene and Lathon got a lot of third-and-longs. In that season, Carolina also started 2-0. The Panthers eventually reached the NFC Championship game in just their second season of play.
So yeah, déjà vu, just like the kind Olivia Rodrigo sings about. Longtime Panther fans who remember Lathon and Greene know exactly what I mean and hope the feeling lasts.
Let’s all just work on the nickname thing, OK?