Panthers pleased with defense's progress

CHARLOTTE - Captain Munnerlyn, the Carolina Panthers' talkative rookie defensive back, cannot remember who it was he was talking to earlier this week. But Munnerlyn was eager to discuss the Panthers' newly formidable defense.

"We were saying how this defense really works," Munnerlyn said. "You get some pressure on the quarterback, get some interceptions and away you go. I guess it has taken a while, but look at how it's working now. Everybody's happy."

"Happy" is not a word to describe the Panthers' defensive situation in September, as the season unfolded with three consecutive losses after a winless preseason. New defensive coordinator Ron Meeks' system remained a mystery to many players. The team's was unable to stop the run. Injuries tested the depth. The defense's best player, Julius Peppers, was criticized for a perceived lack of effort.

What a difference a month makes. Today, after three wins in four games, the Panthers (3-4) prepare for their biggest test of the season, against the unbeaten New Orleans Saints and their top-ranked offense in the Superdome.

Much of the recent success can be attributed to the defense. After forcing six turnovers against the Arizona Cardinals last week, the Panthers defense has stabilized.

Carolina is ranked seventh in the league in total defense (288.1 yards per game) and its pass defense is No. 1 (160.6). The Panthers have improved most notably in their run defense. After spending one week ranked last in that category (182.7 yards per game), they are allowing 127.6 yards per game and have moved up to 24th.

Even in Carolina's lone loss in this stretch - 20-9 against Buffalo - the defense held the Bills to 167 yards.

"The pieces of the puzzle are finally being put together," said tackle Damione Lewis.

Here is how the puzzle is fitting:

- Meeks' scheme - based on the "Tampa 2" defense of his mentor, former Tampa Bay and Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy - is taking hold.

- The addition of veteran tackle Hollis Thomas has helped shore up the run defense.

- Injuries, which decimated the interior line and linebacking corps throughout the preseason and into the regular season, have for the most part healed.

- Peppers, coming off a memorable performance last week against Arizona, is playing at perhaps the highest level of his career.

Meeks inherited a defense that wilted late last season, allowing 30-plus points in five of its final seven games. Meeks' version of Dungy's "Tampa 2" defense depends on speed to pursue the ball and pressure the quarterback, while safeties play a deep zone in which they are each the last line of defense for half the field.

At training camp, coach John Fox and Meeks preached patience while the players struggled with the intricacies of the new defense. But it was a trying transition.

"It was very frustrating," Munnerlyn said. "It was something the guys weren't used to. They'd say, 'Last year we were running different stuff, what is this?' So there was questioning about why we were doing this or why we were doing that."

It did not help that the Panthers opened the season against some of the NFL's better offenses - Philadelphia (fifth in rushing), Atlanta (with star running back Michael Turner) and Dallas (second in total offense). Or that Carolina's offense constantly put its defense under pressure with 11 turnovers in those first three games.

"We were trying to do too much a lot of the time," said Meeks. "We had guys trying to do someone else's job. You do that, something can explode on you."

A major trouble spot early was in the interior defensive line. The Panthers were exposed when Maake Kemoeatu, Carolina's 345-pound starting nose tackle, crashed to the ground with a ruptured Achilles tendon 30 minutes into the first day of training camp in August.

Although Fox and Meeks hoped Kemoeatu's spot might be filled by second-year tackle Nick Hayden or one of several rookies in camp, the Panthers run-stopping problems became obvious in the preseason and spilled into the regular season.

Enter Thomas - a self-described "fat kid" who often leaves the locker room wearing a "SpongeBob SquarePants" backpack - from a trade with the St. Louis Rams.

At 6-foot, 340 pounds, Thomas has solidified the run defense, often taking on the blocks of two offensive linemen and allowing linebackers Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and Na'il Diggs more freedom to get to the ball.

"I have to do that so the linebackers can hunt," Thomas said.

Since Thomas arrived on Oct. 1, Carolina has held its four opponents to an average of 86.2 yards rushing.

Said Lewis: "You have to have a solid guy to fill that slot. He's a big plugger inside."

Emblematic of the defensive turnaround has been Peppers, whose seven sacks this season have him on pace to exceed his career high of 14.5 in 2008. When Peppers plays well, the Panthers usually win: In his eight seasons they are 16-4 when he has more than one sack in a game.

After a sluggish start this season, Peppers, too, appears to be flourishing in Meeks' system. Six sacks have come in the past four games (two each in victories against Washington and Tampa Bay). He also intercepted a pass for a touchdown and forced a fumble last week against Arizona.

"He's got that smile on his face now," Meeks said. "He's leading by example."

Peppers has been the center of two key off-field moments, as well. During a weekly appearance on Charlotte radio on Oct. 8, Beason questioned Peppers' intensity during the team's 0-3 start. Although Beason apologized and said he never formally talked with Peppers about what he said, the remarks might have spurred him.

Ten days later, the normally reserved Peppers addressed his teammates in the locker room before the Panthers' game against Tampa Bay.

"When he spoke, I was looking around, like, 'Is this for real?'" Munnerlyn said. "Everybody listened to him. He told us how we needed to pick it up. How we needed to look ourselves in the mirror and to go out and make plays.

"He always stays to himself. So for him to come out like that was really something for all of us."

Waiting today, however, are the high-powered Saints, whose offense averages an NFL-best 428.7 yards per game.

"We've been playing lights out," Lewis said. "But we've still got a lot of catching up to do."

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC