Young, inexperienced Panthers defense playing well

The Carolina Panthers can’t move the ball and it seems nobody
can cleanly field a punt.

Thank goodness for the defense.

No, really. The unit that lost five-time Pro Bowl defensive end
Julius Peppers in free agency, saw both starting defensive tackles
released, the strongside linebacker cut, the strong safety traded
and the weakside linebacker blow out his knee has been the lone
bright spot in two preseason games.

”Everyone has gone out there and played well and done their
jobs,” linebacker Jon Beason said Monday. ”The key is we’re just
playing fast and guys aren’t making mistakes.”

Despite being handicapped by two interceptions, two fumbled
punts and another special teams turnover that had the New York Jets
starting four drives in Carolina territory Saturday night, the
defense allowed only three field goals and 112 yards in the Jets’
9-3 win.

The Panthers gave up just 225 yards and had six sacks in a 17-12
loss to Baltimore a week earlier.

”You really don’t know how good you are until you put yourself
against an opponent in a game,” said defensive end Everette Brown,
who had two of Carolina’s five sacks against New York. ”We know we
have to prove ourselves. It’s not going to be one of those things
where teams lay down just because we show up.”

While the defense added team speed, it lost experience and added
guys only die-hard fans would know. When asked if he was surprised
at how quickly it’s come together, the two-time Pro Bowl pick
Beason quickly replied, ”Absolutely.”

”There’s so many new faces, you don’t have much chemistry,” he
added. ”But I think we’re developing that.”

Beason is adjusting to a new position, too. He was shifted to
weakside linebacker from the middle after Thomas Davis tore a knee
ligament in a June workout. Beason, who said he hasn’t missed an
assignment there in two games, had two tackles against the
Jets.

The inexperienced Dan Connor, who replaced Beason in the middle,
had a team-high six tackles, including one for a loss.

”Dan’s doing great,” Beason said. ”He’s out there having fun
and he’s flying around making plays. He’s leading, he’s making
calls. He’s speaking more than he ever has, so I feel real
comfortable about what’s going on right now.”

The biggest surprise is the defensive line. When Peppers and his
franchise-record 81 career sacks left for Chicago, the Panthers
entered training camp with a roster of 13 defensive linemen with a
combined 36 1/2 career sacks.

But that youthful, speedy group has produced 11 sacks in two
exhibition games. Tyler Brayton, the only returning starter, had
two sacks against the Ravens before sitting out the Jets game with
a sprained left ankle. Brown, who started in Brayton’s place
Saturday, rookie Greg Hardy, Nick Hayden and Eric Moore all have
two sacks.

The depth left Beason wondering aloud Monday ”who’s going to be
here?” after final cuts. There are still a number of defensive
tackles rotating in with the first team.

”It’s scary, man. Good teams, they’re deep at the D-line
position,” Beason said. ”Guys rotate, just like running backs and
receivers. Get a hot dog, chips and stuff. But I think if we can
have a rotation where guys can stay fresh it’s going to show. And I
think it has so far.”

The secondary, with veteran cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Richard
Marshall returning, is the most stable spot. Sherrod Martin
replaced the traded Chris Harris, but rookie Jordan Pugh played
well Saturday when Martin was sidelined with a groin injury. Four
Jets quarterbacks combined for 46 yards passing.

And while neither the Ravens or Jets did much game-planning, the
performances provided a needed confidence boost.

”We’ve got a lot of new people there and I think they’ve seen
some success,” coach John Fox said. ”Hopefully, we can continue
that and stay healthy.”

Injuries were a concern Monday. Brayton, Martin, Marshall
(knee), cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (calf) and safety C.J. Wilson
(hip), who had a 31-yard fumble return for a touchdown against
Baltimore, sat out practice. But none are believed to be serious
injuries.

So while the Panthers’ offense is still seeking its first
touchdown of the preseason and special teams gaffes keeping the
coaches busy, the mostly anonymous young guys on defense are
carrying the team.

”We have guys who know how to play the game, full speed and all
out,” Beason said. ”Sometimes you make mistakes, but usually when
you’re giving great effort good things happen.”

Notes: WR Steve Smith practiced in full pads Monday for the
first time in his recovery from a broken left hand. It remains
uncertain if he’ll play in a preseason game. ”I can’t make a
prediction based on the first day,” Smith said ”I’m gassed today
so I just have to try to get out and hopefully feel better
tomorrow.” … QB Jimmy Clausen sat out with a sore toe. LT Jordan
Gross (ankle) also didn’t work. … Former NC State coach and
Florida State assistant Chuck Amato attended practice, looking
thinner but healthy following cancer treatments.