I want to start off by acknowledging that picking Hoss this week was harder than usual. I went back and forth (and back and forth) between Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford and Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei before I finally made my choice, because both guys had worthy performances. At the end of the day it was the total context of the performances that ultimately swayed my decision, and that's how I came to choose *insert drum roll* Lotulelei!
First and foremost, Carolina really needed him -- or hell somebody, anybody -- to come up with a big time performance against the Cardinals the way he did. Entering the game, most folks had probably written off the 1-5 Panthers. If they had fallen to 1-6, I bet some Panthers players would be on Priceline right now looking up cheap flights for the day after the regular season ends. To say Carolina had to have that game would be a supreme understatement, and it's not like the Cardinals were some slaw. (For people not from Memphis, "slaw" = bad, sorry, terrible, etc.)
Another reason why Lotulelei's performance stood out in context is about him, personally. The Panthers took him with the 14th overall pick in the draft four years ago, and defensive linemen picked that high are expected to get sacks, period. No, sacks are not always the best or most important indicator of a good defensive lineman. Don't be mad at me. I didn't make the rules, I just acknowledge them.
Lotulelei has been hell against the run so far in his career, but before Sunday he had just seven career sacks to his name.
Hard to get stupid paid on your second contract that way, bro. Hell, his fellow defensive lineman, Kawann Short, who was drafted the same year as Lotulelei, put up 11 sacks last year and Carolina didn't want to pay him top-notch money this offseason, so ...
On one hand, it is obvious that the Panthers still appreciate Lotulelei's contributions as a run stopper after they picked up his fifth-year option before the season. Injuries have also contributed to his lack of sack production. But it's worth pointing out that even he himself has said he wanted to get his numbers up this season. Sacks may not be the end all, be all, but nobody complains about getting more of them.
Then there is also this: Lotulelei's game is not at all pretty. He is a goon on the field and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. He is all about jacking people up. As a pass rusher, Lotulelei doesn't so much run by people as much as he just runs right over them, repeatedly. The fact that he is a mauler rather than a finesse guy probably explains why the Panthers don't always have him on the field on normal passing downs. That doesn't, however, mean he can't get after the passer with his power moves as he showed Sunday.
Just look at his first sack. On the Cardinals' very first possession of the game they were facing a third-and-6 from their own 43-yard line and Lotulelei pushed right guard Earl Watford back so forcefully that his knees buckled! And right at that moment, while Watford was struggling just to say upright, Lotulelei came off inside and hit Carson Palmer's arm as he was trying to throw a pass. The ball ended up on the ground and Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown.
Boom. Goes. The. Dynamite.
I know that the NFL said "my bad" on Monday because evidently replay wasn't working and that play should've been ruled an incomplete pass rather than a fumble, but hey, they aren't going to go back and change the scoreboard or the stat sheet, so it still counts as a huge play. That also doesn't take away that Lotulelei put himself in position to make a play that was that was so close to being a fumble that it was ruled as such on the field in the first place.
But hold on, Lotulelei was just getting started.
Early in the second quarter he switched things up from his normal power rush and went with some quasi-finesse to get his second sack of the game. Don't get it twisted, Lotulelei still came off hard AF and put his hands in Watford's chest initially, but this time instead of continuing to bull rush, he ripped through Watford's outside shoulder to beat him. Watford, who undoubtedly was setting hard to try to take on another bull rush, looked like his feet were stuck in quick sand as Lotulelei zoomed right by him. That's about as close to a finesse move as you are ever going to see out of the guy, and it was one hell of a move!
Mind you, the Cardinals were already backed up and facing a second-and-17 at their own 7-yard line at the time. Lotulelei was on Palmer so fast that he juuust about got him down in the end zone for a safety. Not quite, but almost.
Oh, but he still wasn't done.
On Lotulelei's third sack of the game, he went back to his old trusty bull rush and pushed Watford all the way back right into Palmer's lap. With Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy coming around the edge at left defensive end forcing Palmer up in the pocket, Palmer had nowhere to go but into Lotulelei's waiting arms. Lotulelei easily escaped off Watford's block inside again and put Palmer down on the ground.
That's three sacks, count 'em -- one, two, three -- from a guy who usually comes out of the game on passing downs and whose season high for sacks was a grand total of three before this season. The first of those sacks directly led to points and the second helped flip field position for the Panthers offense, giving it the ball back at the 40-yard line and leading to a field goal. And for good measure, Lotulelei also had a pressure, two other tackles, and forced a hold on Watford.
For a Panthers team whose season was just about in the shitter, Lotulelei's performance was greater than they reasonably could've expected, and exactly what it needed. I'm sure nobody on the Panthers envisioned themselves being 2-5 to start the season, but at least they have a glimmer of hope to turn things around now. Dee Ford's four sacks (by my count) on the road were also quite impressive, but context is key here and for all the reasons explained up above, Star Lotulelei ended up being my choice for Hoss of the Week for Week 8 of the NFL season.