In his corner of the locker room, linebacker Jon Beason smiled and laughed as he answered questions. On the other side, the linemen were busting defensive end Everette Brown for his white "Gucci slippers," that Brown grinned and swore were just Rockports. And cornerback Richard Marshall was off the hook, because even when things went wrong, they went right.
That's the story of the Carolina Panthers' defense, the side that was supposed to struggle but instead is carrying the team and having a great time doing it.
"I think we're having fun – any time you're dominating it's always fun," Beason said. "The good thing about it is, guys are not getting tired of being great. Every play is a new opportunity for guys to go out and keep proving why they belong.
"It's a lot of competition like it's been all camp, and I'm really liking what's going on so far."
The Panthers have to like it, especially because they couldn't have honestly expected it.
The defense that started in Saturday's 15-7 win against Tennessee featured just three players starting in the same position as last year, none of them in the front seven. Yet they turned in a third straight performance that was, to use Beason's word, dominating.
"They've been pretty salty all three preseason games so far," Panthers coach John Fox said.
They allowed the Titans a total of 217 yards, but only 50 in the first half with the Titans' starting offense on the field. The Panthers are giving up an average of 184.7 yards in three exhibitions, a number that's tops in the league. They also lead the league with 18 sacks and eight forced fumbles in the preseason, and their scoring average of 11 points per game is second in the league.
"I think the most important thing we're doing right now is playing fast," Brown said. "From the line to linebackers to secondary, everybody's playing their position fast, knowing their responsibility, and that has allowed us to come out and be successful."
The improved pass rush is the most obvious factor, with different players making an impact every game. Each of the first four defensive ends have had a multi-sack game, the kind of collective effort they knew they'd have to have in the absence of departed star Julius Peppers.
But the improvements they're making are front-to-back, with new guys stepping into new roles and playing well.
Middle linebacker Dan Connor has responded well replacing Beason on run downs, since Beason has had to slide out to the weakside to replace the injured Thomas Davis. The Panthers knew Connor was technically sound, but he has responded to sharing the leadership load with the energetic Beason.
"Yeah, when we're flying around like that you definitely feel it, and that all starts with Jon Beason because he sets the tone and you feel it when you're playing," Connor said. "It's different from any other defensive system I have been in and it's a lot of fun to play in."
And as young secondary players develop, the Panthers are able to do a little more schematically. They still prefer to get all their pass rush from the front four, but Saturday against the Titans, they mixed it up a bit, blitzing a bit more and to better effect.
"We brought a little pressure tonight, try to keep them off-balance a little bit," safety Charles Godfrey said. "We knew they were going to come in with the run game. So try to mix it up a little bit. That's kind of what we're going to – a little bit of blitz and a little bit of zone. Different stuff. It's not just going to be one thing. Keeping it balanced."
They're also living right, as even busted plays are yielding results.
Marshall admitted he was out of position on his third-quarter sack of Kerry Collins, having vacated the zone he was supposed to be covering. But instead of hesitating, he blasted into the backfield to make another impact play.
"I shouldn't have came. But I came," Marshall said. "I thought it was one call and it wasn't. But once I was halfway in there, I just kept going. And it worked. ...
"We're just playing our assignment, playing as a whole. We're not worried about individual stats. We're just working on our D-line rushing, our back end covering, our linebackers tackling and covering. It's been working out for us."
It needs to, because the Panthers' offense – particularly the passing game – has been slow on the uptake. Beason acknowledged that it might not always go this smoothly for his side, but for the moment, he's simply enjoying a heady time for the defense.
"I think they obviously have some key pieces missing," he said of the offense. "Right now, we're playing well on defense, and it's going to be like that throughout the season, there will be games where the offense is scoring lots of points and we're not getting off the field. True teams, everybody does their jobs, and if they're down one day it's our job to pick it up. ...
"Yeah, there are so many new pieces, lot of new faces, young guys and veterans. To play so well this early is a good thing, and hopefully it will carry over into the New York game, and it's going to be tough for the coaches to pick that final 53 man roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball."