Star Lotulelei shined bright in Carolina’s win over the Atlanta Falcons. Collecting two sacks, a QB hit, and three hurries, Star had the best game of his career according to ProFootballFocus.com. The metrics site graded Star at +4.1 overall against Atlanta. The only two games he’s even come close this type of production this season were Chicago (+2.5) and Seattle (+2.4) Sunday’s explosion came after 15 long weeks of average play, underscored by lingering injury. Neither he nor Coach Ron Rivera indicated that the diminished production was due to injury, but from looking at the snap count, the ankle injury wasn't easy for the big fellow.
After an impressive rookie campaign, fans and the media began questioning if Star was experiencing a sophomore slump. Rivera defended the young player, citing that they moved him around a lot, playing him as “tackle over offensive guard” and “nose tackle lined up over center.” While Star continued to battle, even he showed a certain frustration for not yet recording a sack through fourteen weeks. He stated before facing the Cleveland Browns, “Yeah it’s about time. It’s Week 15. I’m going to try to get in there. (It’s) been long overdue.”
Well “the time” couldn’t have come at a more perfect time than on Sunday, where Star became a force that couldn’t be stopped. When he wasn’t finishing plays, he was setting up the guys around him for success. The pocket was constantly collapsing on Matt Ryan, who aside from being sacked six times, threw two interceptions returned for touchdowns. He was clearly flustered, and Star was literally a big reason for his bad day.
Star’s production wasn’t the only surprising part of his Sunday performance. Aside from being a little more animated than usual, it seemed as Sean McDermott used Lotulelei in a different capacity than usual. Generally, Star is known for his run-stopping ability, while people view Kawaan Short as the get in the backfield and disrupt the passer type player. Star, however, played the majority of his snaps (31) in pass-rushing situations, while only nine in rushing situations. Now a lot of this may have to do with Atlanta’s pass-heavy offense and Carolina’s dependence on the front four creating pressure without blitzing. It’s nice, however, to see Star step into a role that, not only does Carolina need him to fill, but one that he isn’t typically associated with.
Lotulelei led the team in snaps taken by a defensive tackle Atlanta, playing two more snaps than Kawaan Short. He hasn’t been on the field this much since he rolled his ankle against Philadelphia, and he hasn’t been this productive, well, ever. His play and production indicates he is healthy and has rediscovered his mojo. Add that Short is settling into his starting role nicely, and the Panthers suddenly have a mean rotation at tackle with Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole backing up the two rising star tackles.
Star’s reemergence will be vital if the Panthers want to continue this momentum into the playoffs. Carolina has gotten hot over the last two weeks, and it’s nice to see Star breaking out of the slump as well. It hasn’t been an easy season for any of these guys, Star included. It’s nice, however, to see Star and the Panthers starting to shine at the right time.
Greg Allman may have said it best, Star “Shine is better sunshine, better than moonshine; damn sure better than the rain,” or something to that effect.
Follow "the Professor," aka Tony Dunn, on Twitter @Cat_Chronicles