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Gallagher column: Panthers’ defense had something to prove on Sunday

CHARLOTTE ó You can grumble all you want about John Fox’s pedestrian offense but because of Fox’s defense, it was a walk in the park for the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The Panthers’ offense was actually much more than pedestrian, scoring 30 points in a 23-point win over New Orleans. Fox mixed long passes with short tosses, even throwing a flea flicker (that’s right, a flea flicker) into the mix to compliment the usual mundane, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust running game.
But the defense was the story of this game. It shut down the best passing offense in the NFL, knocked Reggie Bush out of the game and snuffed the Saints on two fourth-down plays.
“That’s a good team,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “That’s a good defense.”
Good? Led by Carolina’s favorite son, Julius Peppers, the defense was much more than good.
It was grrrrrrrreat.
Peppers forced a fumble that led to a touchdown. He had a sack. And he stopped Aaron Stecker on a fourth-and-2 from the Panthers 3 early in the fourth quarter that sealed the Saints’ fate.
“Peppers played reckless,” gushed linebacker Jon Beason. “I just sat back and watched. I was like a fan. I was taking notes.”

The reason for the rousing success on Sunday? The defense took notes from last week when the Panthers were ransacked 27-3 at Tampa Bay. It came out for warmups at Bank of America Stadium with a purpose.
“We laid an egg last week,” cornerback Ken Lucas admitted. “We were like a wounded dog. You either get more wounded or you fight your way out of the corner. We wanted to redeem ourselves today.”
Peppers’ teammate on the defensive line, Damione Lewis, echoed those sentiments. He stayed away from his television set all week and concentrated on the Saints.
“After we got smashed, I turned off the TV,” he said. “They weren’t saying anything good about us.”
They will this week. The defensive front put so much pressure on Saints quarterback Drew Brees that he rarely had time to set up and throw the ball downfield. He came in leading the league with 324 yards passing per game. He finished with 231, but he only had 69 at halftime and 104 after three quarters.
“They were working their tails off today to get a little pressure on him so we weren’t back there covering forever,” strong safety Chris Harris said of the defensive line.
Of course, you must remember, Carolina has the NFL’s second-best pass defense, giving up only 158 yards per game.
“We knew it would be a major challenge,” Lucas said. “Something had to give today. We didn’t want Brees to get over 300.”

Lucas made the third quarter’s biggest play with the Panthers up 20-7.
Brees realized he had to get the Saints back in the game by going long. He floated a pass down the sideline to Marques Colston. Lucas, who had his back to the play, appeared beaten.
But at the last second, he turned and made a spectacular interception.
More than that, he had the presence of mind to leap up and return the ball 31 yards. It set up a touchdown and a 27-7 Panthers’ lead.
“I’m just happy I caught it,” Lucas said. “The secondary has had a lot of drops this season. If we catch them, we’d be leading the league in interceptions.”
Lucas wasn’t happy when Colston hauled in a 54-yard completion deep in Panthers territory in the fourth quarter.
“It was just a miscommunication,” he said.
Now, it was the defensive line’s turn to shine. New Orleans moved inside the five and faced a fourth-and-1 at the 3 with 11:42 left. Brees handed to Stecker.
Boom. Peppers swatted him to the ground after a yard gain.
Panthers’ ball.
Saints deflated for good.
“It was great to see him take over the game,” Beason said of Peppers. “It’s all about pride. To see us constantly come up with stops was huge.”
New Orleans knew it was over, and it showed in a half-hearted defensive effort as Carolina drove 88 yards and took nine minutes off the clock before a John Kasay field goal finished the scoring.

The Panthers’ defensive line has changed. Guys like Jenkins and Rucker have been replaced by guys named Johnson and Brayton. The results, however, were the same yesterday.
It was Carolina Panthers football at its best.
“We just clicked today,” Lewis said. “We did pretty good, I guess.”
Lucas was more to the point.
“It’s easy to perform,” he said, “after a horrible performance.”

Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4287 or rgallagher@salisburypost.com.

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