Panthers defense is making strides

CHARLOTTE - The Carolina Panthers have turned their defense around the past two weeks, and all it took was stepping out of character a bit.

As it turns out, the attitude change goes all the way to the top. The personality of the defense being called by coordinator Ron Meeks changed as much as the personnel.

"It's twofold - call a more aggressive scheme, and the execution is a lot better," Meeks said. "The attitude of the players is picked up a little bit. They've taken on a more active responsibility for their play, and you feel more comfortable with what you're doing."

In the basic philosophy of the Tampa-2 style Meeks installed this year, all the pressure on the opposing quarterback should come from the front four. That leaves the linebackers and secondary better able to cover. Problem was, that pressure wasn't coming early (four sacks in the first three games).

So Meeks adjusted his calls, and since it coincided with the return of safety Chris Harris and linebacker Na'il Diggs and the arrival of nose tackle Hollis Thomas, the results were apparent.

The past two weeks, the Panthers have a combined nine sacks, with Julius Peppers and the rest of the line looking like new men. It also has been a boon for linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason, whose "skill sets" (one of Meeks' favorite buzzwords) make them better in pressure.

"We're blitzing more, which is a good thing," Beason said. "I know everybody gets happy about blitzing. They called my number, so you want to get after the quarterback. But guys are just where they're supposed to be, doing their job.

"We're getting sacks from our front four, but when you can throw in a curve ball, it just makes us better."

Beason said he likes the way Meeks is calling the defense, but the simple matter is the players are executing.

"We did (blitz), but we were getting beat on it," Beason said. "Guys were making mistakes, and if you get beat on the blitz, you get burned. You've got to press on. We're just getting better coverage now. Guys are just doing their jobs."

They're also walking around a bit differently now. Harris said it's fairly obvious the team has a bit of swagger now, having put up impressive numbers the past two weeks. They allowed two short-field touchdowns to Washington and one touchdown drive in Tampa Bay. But he also pointed to the increased pressure in recent weeks as a reason.

"We get excited no matter what he calls," Harris said. "But when they call a pressure, we know we've got to get there, get to the quarterback, get in his face a little bit, a little faster than if we had a four-man rush.

" I think guys are getting a little more confident in what we're doing, because we're seeing results in what we're doing. The other thing that helps is we've got everybody back, so that chemistry's starting to come together, and that wasn't there at the beginning of the year."

While everyone talks about the collective effort, it's easy to see that Peppers is playing much better the past two weeks.

Meeks said he was seeing a different Peppers, a guy more comfortable in the new scheme and producing the way he envisioned.

"I think Pep has taken an active responsibility, being one of the core players on the team, that he stepped up to be accountable and do his job," Meeks said.