SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker arrived at training camp in 2002 with a challenge from then-Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Get to the quarterback: 1 point
Force a fumble: 1 point
Tackle for loss: 2 points
Most points at the end of camp: prize
“It was like we were playing a game within a game," Rucker recalled of the point system Del Rio devised for the entire defense, not just his starting ends. “It helped us engage when it was hot. The offense didn’t like it, but all of a sudden they had to raise their game because we’re out there whooping and hollering, ‘I got a point!'
“That’s what helped us become who we were."
That season, Rucker and Peppers combined for 22 sacks -- the fourth most by a Carolina duo in team history. That helped a defense that ranked 28th in the NFL a year earlier during a 1-15 season jump to a No. 2 ranking and 7-9 record.
That was the foundation for the 2003 defense that helped Carolina reach the Super Bowl.
Edge-rushers Brian Burns and Haason Reddick didn’t need a training camp game when they arrived this year at Wofford College. They already were challenging each other to see who would have the most sacks.
Reddick went so far as to predict the two will combine for 30 sacks, which would be two more than the team-record 28 recorded by Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon in 1996.
“We come out every day talking trash to each other, encouraging each other, making it a competition, making it fun," Reddick said.
And while they haven’t decided what the individual prize will be for leading the team in sacks in 2021, they feel confident the team will be the overall winner -- just as it was for Peppers, Rucker and the Panthers.
“Pick your poison, as I always say," Burns said with a big smile.
History shows having two elite edge-rushers typically means success, not only for Carolina but teams in general. In 1996, Carolina’s second year in the league, Lathon and Greene led the team to a 12-4 record and a trip to the NFC championship game with a defense that ranked 10th overall.
In 2013, ends Greg Hardy (15 sacks) and Charles Johnson (11) combined for 26 sacks. That team went 12-4, ranked second in total defense and reached the playoffs after three straight losing seasons.
In 2017, Peppers (11) and Mario Addison (11) combined for 22 sacks for a team that went 11-5 and ranked seventh in total defense.
“It’s huge,’’ Rucker said of what having two elite edge-rushers means to a team’s success.
Looking at league history, the 1985 Chicago Bears had Richard Dent (17) and Dan Hampton (6.5) a year after they combined for 29 sacks. That team had a league-best 64 sacks en route to a 15-1 record and Super Bowl title.
The 1986 New York Giants had Lawrence Taylor (20.5) and Leonard Marshall (12) combine for 32.5 sacks on their way to the championship.
Greene and Greg Lloyd combined for 24 sacks in 1994 for a Pittsburgh team that lost the AFC title game and the next year reached the Super Bowl.
The list goes on and on.
Dom Capers, the architect of the Pittsburgh defense with Greene and Lloyd and the head coach at Carolina in ’96, said there’s no doubt having two elite edge-rushers leads to defensive and team success.
“All the difference in the world," said Capers, now a senior defensive assistant for Detroit. “Now people have got to make a decision. If they’re going to have a back chip Burns, then they’re going to have a single block on the other side.
“What you try to do is have as many single blocks as you can, and they certainly don’t want to single block either one of them."
Burns didn’t have a consistent pass-rush threat opposite him last season, keeping him from turning some of those pressures into sacks. After his team-leading nine sacks, nobody had more than 5.5.
Coach Matt Rhule made finding another edge-rusher an offseason priority. He made sure the Panthers signed Arizona’s Reddick, whom he coached at Temple, to a one-year, $8 million deal.
Reddick, with no serious threat opposite him, had 12.5 sacks last season, as he moved from inside to outside linebacker/end where he played in college. He believes that could have been much higher with a teammate such as Burns.
Ditto, said Burns.
“He’s going to bring out the dog in me," Burns said. “It’s going to be fun to have help, one, but it’s going to push me to work harder and get faster because I know he’s going to."
“Me and him coming from both edges, it’s going to be crazy, man," he said.
Speed off the edge is their best attribute. Burns ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds at the 2019 combine. Reddick was clocked at 4.52 in 2017.
Few teams will be able to match that.
Burns added 12 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-5 frame during the offseason to be better able to overpower offensive tackles when he can’t get around them with what he likes to call “Spider-Man’’ moves.
Hypothetically, had Burns and Reddick compiled their sack totals (21) last year on the same team, they would have tied for the third-best duo in the NFL behind Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt (26) and Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd (24) of the Los Angeles Rams.
Now that they are together, their goals are lofty, as Reddick showed with his prediction of 30 sacks.
Burns showed his mindset when he arrived at practice wearing a wristband that reads, "Different Breed."
“I feel like I’m different than other edges, other ends," he said. “I feel I bring something different in terms of my bend, my flexibility and speed."
Having Reddick opposite him could elevate the duo to one of the best in the league. Burns already had the fourth-highest pass-rush win rate when lined up as an edge-rusher last season, according to ESPN Metrics from NFL Next Generation Stats. Reddick ranked 21st, having to take on more double-teams and chips than he cares to think about.
Rucker sees these two pushing each other like he and Peppers did. They retired with Peppers ranked fourth on the NFL’s all-time sack list with 159.5, first in team history with 97 sacks, and Rucker third with 55.5.
“When you have one defensive end that’s getting pressure, that’s a big thing," Rucker said. “Then when you have two ... it becomes a race to the quarterback, and teams are going to have to account for that."