Carolina created its topflight 4--3 defense the old-fashioned way: by drafting good players and building around them. At the forefront is last year's first-round pick, Luke Kuechly, who's changed this franchise's fortunes with his extraordinary play recognition, speed and ferocity. In two years he's developed into the best middle linebacker in football. Still, a Super Bowl defense requires more than a great young centerpiece. It takes the right scheme and a supporting cast devoid of glaring weaknesses. The best example: the 2000 Ravens, who ran a downhill-oriented 4--3 and surrounded 25-year-old middle linebacker Ray Lewis with front-seven playmakers like Peter Boulware, Michael McCrary and Rob Burnett.

Carolina's D is less talented than Baltimore's was, but with the NFL's most voracious front seven, it's good enough for a Super Bowl run. Two years removed from a third ACL surgery, strongside linebacker Thomas Davis (above) still has a sensational burst, whether he's stoning ballcarriers, covering underneath or blitzing. Rookie Star Lotulelei has so far lived up to his promise as the 14th pick, out of Utah, clogging gaps as a "1-technique" tackle and penetrating them as a "3-technique." Charles Johnson has prospered not only at his usual left end spot but also at tackle in nickel, where he's terrific on stunts. And even though Johnson reached the 11-sack mark for the third time in four years, offenses construct their protections mainly around end Greg Hardy, whose combination of power and quickness (both inside and out) netted him 15 sacks.

This disruptive front seven hides flaws in the Panthers' secondary, which lacks suffocating cover men and playmakers. (Very telling: strong safety Quintin Mikell and cornerback Drayton Florence, both 33, signed after September, started immediately and played more than 60% of the snaps.) Throughout the fall coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott used a single-high safety zone scheme. The resoundingly basic Cover 3 worked because the line consistently generated pressure while the 'backers showed uncommon range, leaving smaller voids for the DBs to defend.

But a defense that's not evolving is endangered, so in December, Carolina started flavoring its scheme with more pressure packages. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn has since proved adept at blitzing from the slot, and safety Mike Mitchell at firing from the box. The Panthers have excelled at "nickel star" blitzes, in which a slot defensive back and inside linebacker both rush. It's an easy-to-disguise blitz that puts weakside blockers in a bind and uses underneath coverage rotations to snuff out hot routes.

Carolina doesn't cater to its players' strengths only on D. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula features a misdirection-based option run game that highlights QB Cam Newton's mobility. Its pistol formations set up unique play-action and help mask the line's mediocre pass protection. On straight dropbacks Newton has otherworldly talent—witness the rockets he threw in traffic on the game-winning drive against the Saints in Week 16—but he also has inconsistent mechanics and a poor sense of timing on progression reads.

A young QB's flaws tend to eventually trump his physical gifts and halt a postseason run. But a truly dominant D provides a much greater margin for error.


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