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NFL: Panthers’ close-knit defense dominating early

Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Imagine how good the Carolina Panthers defense would be if the NFL hadn’t outlawed stickum two decades ago.
While the Panthers (4-1) are coming off a shutout win and haven’t allowed a touchdown in nine quarters, Ken Lucas was lamenting Wednesday how many times he and fellow cornerback Chris Gamble have dropped sure interceptions.
“We’d probably have seven interceptions right now if we did have stickum on our hands,” said Lucas, who had a pick in Sunday’s 34-0 win over Kansas City. “We both take pride in having good ball skills. We both have been failing at that so far. We just got to start catching those balls that come to us.”
There was no lack of complacency in the locker room Wednesday, despite Carolina’s lofty No. 4 ranking in total defense after allowing Kansas City only 127 yards. A week earlier the Panthers held Atlanta to three field goals.
“It’s scary to think that we shut somebody out and we still have room for improvement,” Lucas said.
It’s part of a dramatically different attitude after Carolina went 7-9 in a 2007 season that included defensive tackle Kris Jenkins accusing his teammates of having no heart.
Jenkins, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, was traded in the offseason to the New York Jets. While it left the Panthers without a unique talent, it’s fostered a closer-knit unit. Jenkins’ fluctuating weight and his absences at optional workouts no longer serve as distractions.
The camaraderie was apparent early in training camp. Jon Beason, a second-year middle linebacker, and Chris Harris, a strong safety who was acquired in a trade last year, quickly became the defensive leaders. The quiet Julius Peppers also became more vocal.
Peppers, who managed only 21/2 sacks last season, recorded his third sack in three games against the Chiefs. His energy, missing much of last season, was on display for quarterback Jake Delhomme in practice Wednesday.
“The last three plays of practice, he rushed off the edge like it was fourth quarter, game on the line and he had to get to the quarterback,” Delhomme said. “When your main cog, when your face of the franchise does that, it’s a good thing.”
Peppers has had help on a line that was full of questions in training camp. Tyler Brayton has adequately replaced the retired Mike Rucker at defensive end. Damione Lewis, Jenkins’ backup last year, has been solid.
Thomas Davis has improved at outside linebacker, but the emerging star is the speedy and strong Beason. The first-round pick set a team record with 160 tackles as a rookie last year. He’s on pace to match that mark, recording 50 in five games with one interception.
“Beason is a Pro Bowl linebacker right now, if you ask me. He is their heart and soul,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, whose Buccaneers host Carolina Sunday. “But it’s their style. They are aggressive, man. They blitz on every front. Unorthodox, reckless blitzing.”
That’s part of an offseason decision to simplify the defense to take advantage of the its athletic ability. The Panthers, held to a franchise low 23 sacks last season, have 10 in five games. They’re routinely pressuring the quarterback, and they can blitz more because the secondary is capable of staying with receivers longer.
Even the run defense has been better. Larry Johnson, who rushed for 198 yards against Denver, was held to 2 yards on seven carries Sunday.
Johnson joins a list of elite runners that includes Michael Turner, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte and LaDainian Tomlinson that have failed to rush for 100 yards against Carolina.

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