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.