CHARLOTTE — It’s not just that Panthers defensive tackle Derrick Brown is making plays, though he is making a lot of plays.
The thing that’s truly impressive about Brown’s start to the season is that he’s playing practically every play, and that’s not something a 320-ish-pound man normally does.
“He’s built for it too,” linebacker Frankie Luvu said. “That is a very special man. He’s a big teddy bear. But I know how he leads at practice, and he’s kind of taken that role, too. And when you walk in the door, I mean from the moment I got here, DB was the big dog, and leading from the front.
“So, I mean, nothing has changed for me; it’s been DB throwing people around and being a bully.”
The sheer volume of plays he’s making, and the sheer volume of Brown, is impressive. But the sheer number of plays he’s playing is truly stunning.
He played 50 of the 52 defensive snaps against Atlanta (96 percent). That’s a lot, but it’s the kind of thing you can do when the defense is getting off the field and playing a smaller-than-average number of total snaps. When he played 72 of the 77 snaps (94 percent) against the Saints last week, it was clear that Brown was on a mission.
For context, last year, he played a career-high 870 snaps. That was 75 percent of the team total.
This year, he’s barely coming off the field, taking a whole seven plays off in the first two games.
For the understated Brown, this doesn’t seem to be a big deal.
“I’ll play 100 if that’s what we need,” he said with a shrug.
He says it casually. It is not normal.
Brown’s 122 snaps this year are the fourth-most among defensive linemen in the league through two weeks, and the three guys ahead of him are edge-rushers Maxx Crosby, Danielle Hunter, and Aidan Hutchinson. Those three gentlemen are all at least 50 pounds lighter than Brown’s listed 320 pounds (Hutchinson 268, Hunter 263, Crosby 255). So he’s literally pulling more weight than any lineman in the league at this point in the season.
He’s not just defying the laws of phys ed by throwing cats around, he’s defying the laws of physics by moving that kind of mass at that kind of acceleration for that many plays.
It’s the kind of thing that’s not accidental or coming from someone else. The Panthers keep very specific data on players’ workloads, heart rates, and maximum speeds in practice, so it’s all very measured. But it’s not as if Brown is on someone else’s plan.
“That’s all him,” director of human performance Andrew Althoff said with a nod of respect when asked about how you prepare a man of that size for that kind of workload.
Brown gets ready for this the old-fashioned way — by running. Often with much smaller men. The after-practice conditioning has been one of the staples of his plan for a few years. To the eye of those around the practice field and his teammates, it appears he’s doing more of it this year, though he shrugged that off as well.
“Just kind of kept the same base of what I did last year and just keep going,” Brown said.
He’s also bringing friends along, as his teammates have taken up his habits, from the pace he keeps during drills in practice (new line coach Todd Wash does move them at a high intensity) to the post-practice running.
“To be his size, he’s in phenomenal shape, like phenomenal,” fellow defensive tackle Shy Tuttle said. “I ain’t seen nothing like it. He’s out there; he’s chasing guys down and encouraging guys. Like, you see that and know me and him play the same position, he’ll tell you to get on your s—, like you’ve got to pick it up.”
“It’s just whatever we feel our body needs that day,” Williams said. “But sometimes we do some stuff that we don’t want to do, and then it hurts, but in the game, it pays off.”
“In the room, it’s a peer pressure thing, that’s for sure,” Brown acknowledged with a nod. “But, you know, we’re just not going to let the standard fall down. I mean, you know what it is.
“Last year, we did every single Wednesday; that was the day that we did it. It’s just getting ready for the week. And, you know, I had a process, and that’s how the process went for me.”
It’s all very matter-of-fact the way Brown says it, but the evidence is on tape that he’s not only in great shape but playing at an extremely high level. The stat line is reductive. This year, he has 15 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback hurry. It’s probably too early to start calculating paces (127.5 tackles this season seems unrealistic), but he set a career-high last year with 67 tackles, which tied the Panthers franchise record for most in a season by a defensive lineman (the 275-ish pound Mike Rucker in 2002).
Numbers are one thing. When his teammates see it, they know it.
“He is like one of the top guys out there interior-wise; you have to make sure you account for 95 because he has the potential to mess up every play,” Tuttle said, after admiring Brown from afar in New Orleans in recent years. “When I wasn’t here, you’d see him tossing dogs. I mean, last year, he had a play; he blew up the center, got the running back on the dive, and then went and got the quarterback. He does that all the time.”
Williams grew up a Panthers fan, so he knows the mythology and, like Tuttle, was impressed in years past when he’d see what Brown was doing on television or in games against him. Being next to it, seeing Brown’s play and his leadership takes on a different dimension.
“Derrick’s been Derrick,” Williams said. “I think the world knows he’s one of the top guys at his position. I mean, we just had the primetime game and the national recognition, but that’s what he’s been putting on display since he came into the league.
“He’s one of one man. He’s doing some incredible stuff. I’m glad I’m playing with him and not against him. When I came here, I told him, I said, you don’t know how good this defense is from afar. I played against this team in 2020 and 2022. So I knew how good the defense was, but to see him day in and day out and see how everybody prepares and see how really like a family they are. I’m like, OK, I see you.”
And the guys who have been around him a regular basis see it, too, and will tell you that the level keeps rising. Marquis Haynes Sr. sits next to Brown in meetings and tries to tell him.
“I told him when you watch film of him, that’s the stuff Aaron Donald does, that’s the stuff Chris Jones does,” Haynes said. “That’s the kind of player he is. I mean, he’s being himself. Every day, he’s always doing extra running and stuff to help get prepared for the game and stuff like that. So it’s not new to me that he’s like playing like he’s playing right now.”
The view from the other side of the line of scrimmage is equally respectful.
“I mean, Derrick’s been going from the start of OTAs, he’s been working his ass off,” center Bradley Bozeman said. “He’s been getting after it, working, working different things for himself that he knows who’s going to make it better. So the guy goes hard. It’s been really impressive and fun to see it translate out here.
“I mean, the thing about Derrick is, he’s so big and so strong, but yet so fast and so quick-twitch that he can encompass everything. I mean, he can hit you with the power, he can hit you with the speed, he can hit you with something different every rep. He’s just a different animal.”
But for Brown, and his low-key manner when talking about his own game, it’s not anything different; it’s just more of what he’s been building toward since he came here in the first round of the 2020 draft.
He’s doing special things, but to him, it’s not special at all. It’s just what he does, whether it’s pushing others to keep up with his conditioning routine or collapsing opposing offensive lines from the inside out.
“I mean, I’m just trying to be out there as much as my team needs, man,” he said. “I just want to do everything I can to help this team win and get the things done.”
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