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Panthers’ defensive line out to prove something

By Mike Cranston
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Bringing up Michael Jordan’s uniform number in his home state usually brings smiles. Not around the Carolina Panthers.
The number 23 represents the biggest failure of a lost season. It’s the number of sacks the Panthers collected in 2007, second-fewest in the NFL despite a much-hyped, high-priced defensive line.
“For us,” defensive tackle Damione Lewis said Thursday, “that’s embarrassing.”
Lewis is now part of a new-look and motivated line at this week’s optional workouts. Not only are two of last season’s starters gone, the Panthers are installing a new scheme in hopes of preventing opposing quarterbacks from setting up their recliners in the pocket again this fall.
“I think we’re doing more attacking up front,” Lewis said. “We’re going to have a lot more blitzes.”
After spending the past two seasons as a backup, Lewis is working with the starters after the Panthers traded mammoth Kris Jenkins to the New York Jets. Lewis, who signed a new three-year contract, will be paired with massive Maake Kemoeatu in the middle of a line the Panthers expect to do more than just stop the run.
“We had to do things to get a better pass rush,” coach John Fox said. “Those two big guys in there are really good on the run, but you still need some speed and quickness to rush the passer. We’re taking a little different approach there, in particular with at least one of the defensive tackles. We’ll see how it works out.”
It’s one of many changes. Seven-year starter Mike Rucker retired, leaving the young and quick Charles Johnson as the front-runner to replace him at defensive end. The Panthers also moved Julius Peppers, the three-time Pro Bowl pick who was nearly invisible last season with 21/2 sacks, to the right side. Peppers, who had 13 sacks in 2006, spent most of his first six seasons at left end.
While the Panthers try to work out a contract extension for Peppers, who will count almost $16 million against the salary cap in the final year of his contract, the Panthers are installing a new pass-rush scheme. The new wrinkles call for more movement and rotations on the line and multiple formations to try to cross up opposing teams.
“I kind of look forward to the challenge and the freedoms they’re giving us up front,” Lewis said. “Maybe we can get out and be a little more creative.
“I’m kind of liking it. I’m really getting into it.”
Despite playing mostly on third downs and obvious passing plays last season, Lewis’ 31/2 sacks led all defensive linemen. Rucker was held to three sacks, while Jenkins had 21/2 and Kemoeatu none.
Only 14 of the Panthers’ 23 sacks came from linemen. Peppers, who demanded double teams most of his career, was often single-covered late in the season and still couldn’t get to the quarterback.
“It was really shocking, to be honest with you,” Lewis said. “You could never have told me that we would have 23 sacks at the end of the season.”
The Panthers signed free-agent defensive end Tyler Brayton, who will contend with Johnson and Stanley McClover for a starting job. Darwin Walker and Ian Scott were brought in to add depth at tackle.
Lewis said no one is yet comfortable with the new positions and scheme, and they won’t work out the kinks until they can start hitting in training camp. But he said they remain motivated by that ugly number: 23.

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