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Panthers lose leash

A new coach and a new coordinator have put together a defensive scheme that lets Carolina players be aggressive.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2002

A new coach and a new coordinator have put together a defensive scheme that lets Carolina players be aggressive.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The past few seasons, Panthers defensive end Michael Rucker might as well have been playing while handcuffed. The Panthers played a reactionary defensive style that locked players into various assignments, limiting some of their natural abilities.

But new coach John Fox and first-year defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio brought in a defensive scheme this season that has unlocked the Panthers defense. Rucker and Co. has been wreaking havoc ever since.

The league's worst defense a season ago, the Panthers added rookie standout defensive end Julius Peppers and have bounded almost to the top in a little more than half a season. If it weren't for their surprising letdowns late in games (they've blown five fourth-quarter leads), they probably would be at the top.

Of course, the Panthers could drop if they lose Peppers, who is facing a possible four-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance, according to the Charlotte Observer.

But, as it is, coming into Sunday's rematch against Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium, the Panthers are third in total defense (282.9 yards per game), second in points allowed (16.8) and first in sacks (33). They have forced teams to go three-and-out a league-best 50 times and have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher despite facing top runners such as Deuce McAllister (71 yards), Ahman Green (73) and quarterback Michael Vick (91). Only two teams (Dallas and Atlanta) have more than 100 yards against them.

"I think guys from last year learned from what happened and we've taken those things to heart," Rucker said. "(Our defensive scheme) lets us be aggressive instead of tentative."

Del Rio's scheme has made a noticeable difference. It is an attacking style that puts a premium on getting to the quarterback, especially among its defensive linemen. Rucker and Peppers, who are speed rushers, are often turned loose on the outside, and blitzes can come from virtually anywhere.

It's little wonder that Carolina's linemen have accounted for 29 of the team's 33 sacks. Sunday against the Saints, the team's two sacks were registered by Peppers and Rucker.

"We're getting on the edge and hitting it instead of getting in front and two-gapping like we did in the past," Rucker said. "It plays to our advantage. I'm not a two-gapper. I'm a guy that gets on the edge and goes. Peppers is the same way. And that's what we're doing this year."

Perhaps the genius of the Panthers scheme is its many disguises. Few teams camouflage their blitzes as well as Carolina.

They do it by constantly moving and showing offenses an array of defensive fronts and formations. Just before the snap, they might shift their defensive line or slide their linebackers into different lanes, anything to try to confuse and disrupt blocking assignments.

It worked against the Bucs in Week 8. Backup quarterback Rob Johnson, playing in place of injured starter Brad Johnson, was sacked six times and forced out of the pocket repeatedly.

In all, the Panthers limited the Bucs to 226 total yards, the defense's second-best effort this season (they held Detroit to 122 in Week 2).

"Their safety rotation might determine which side they are going to blitz from, and sometimes they don't show it to you until late," Bucs guard Todd Washington said. "Other times they might line up in one front and then shift the whole line and linebackers to another front in mid cadence, and that takes a lot of adjustments on our part. When you're able to do that and be well-coached, they're very hard to stop. Most teams are easy. They line up in one front and play that, then the next play, play a different front.

"But their ability to actually shift and move their front four and move their linebackers and change their play at the line of scrimmage, that can be difficult to handle."

While Fox and Del Rio are lauded for the turnaround, they say the credit goes to the players.

"One thing I learned in coaching a long time ago is, you show me good players and I'll show you a good coach," Fox said.

The biggest knock on the defense is clearly pass coverage. Granted, it ranks fourth in the league against the pass (182.3 ypg), but it repeatedly has been torched late. Sunday, the Saints marched 95 yards in the final minutes, almost solely by throwing the ball, for the winning touchdown.

It was the fifth time in six losses the defense failed to hold down the stretch, which to the Panthers almost makes their other impressive defensive statistics meaningless.

"It's obviously very frustrating for all of us involved -- players, coaches, fans," Fox said. "But I think our guys know how close we are. I think they feel so close they can smell it. We've had some unfortunate things happen. We make a play and it gets taken away.

"(But) I think we're building on it and I think we'll maintain our focus."

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