CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers' defense is slowly getting back to where it's usually been.
They're just doing it in an unusual way.
The Panthers, who have always prided themselves on a strong front four, have instead been relying on the back seven of their defense as they try to keep their season afloat.
With a defensive line that can seemingly no longer apply pressure, the linebackers are improving daily, and the secondary has gone from an alleged weakness to perhaps the strength of the unit, the latest turn in a season gone upside down.
"You definitely see the talent," defensive end Mike Rucker said of the array of young players behind him. "Now it's can you put it together and be consistent. You can find Pro Bowl plays in everybody, but we have to be consistent.
"But the future here is going to be bright, with young talent like that."
It would be easy to make a case that the Panthers' two best defenders this year have been the among the youngest, beginning with rookie revelation Jon Beason, along with third-year safety Chris Harris.
Those two have added a spark to a defense growing old, which has now seemingly transitioned through the Dan Morgan era in the middle with the emergence of Beason, and found a replacement for former safety Mike Minter in Harris.
Throw in the continued improvement of linebacker Thomas Davis, and a three-deep corps of critically acclaimed cornerbacks, and the Panthers certainly have the building blocks for a defense that could continue to carry the team, even if they're building it backward to the old plan.
From the back to the front
The statement from coach John Fox last week was as striking as it was simple.
He was asked a question about the recent streak of plays made by Harris, who they acquired in trade from Chicago (a bargain for a fifth-round pick) just before Minter's retirement.
It looked like a decent acquisition at the time, but has proven to be perhaps their best move of the last two offseasons.
"I wouldn't know what to think if we didn't have him," Fox said. "Let me put it that way. We were very fortunate to have gotten him, and he probably has been better than probably what we anticipated. He brings energy. He's a ball hawk. He's forced four fumbles. He's got the right demeanor, and I'm sure glad we have him.
"Not just the safety position, I think he's helped solidify our whole secondary. I think our secondary over the last four to five weeks has improved, and I think he's a big reason for it. He's a pro. He knows how to prepare and he's helped some of those young guys in that preparation."
In addition to the four forced fumbles, Harris has recovered three and added an interception. He's also second on the team in tackles, behind Beason, and adding gravity to a secondary that looked like a question mark all offseason.
But it's not as if he hasn't had help.
The cornerbacks have picked up their play this season after an inconsistent 2006, showing some of the talent that scouts have long gushed over. One veteran talent evaluator said recently that the combination of Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall might be one of the top three groups of three in the league.
Lucas, the old man of the bunch in his seventh year, even felt generous enough to include recent pickup Patrick Dendy in the conversation.
"We've got four quality corners who I think can start on any team," Lucas said. "When you've got to look over your shoulder and know if you go down there's a guy who can do as well as you do, you can't afford to take off or have bad games on a consistent basis. You have your teammates pushing you every week, every day in practice. It pays off in the game.
"If you ask about every team in the NFL, they'd say the front seven is the strength of a team. You very seldom hear that a secondary is the strength of a defense. Since I've been here, we've always supposedly been the weak link, and we take that personally, and we want to prove to everybody and ourselves that we're not the weak link, that we are one of the strengths of this team."
Back in the mix
Actually, that would probably be the revamped linebackers, who appear on the verge of becoming special.
Rucker said last week that while the defense misses Morgan (out for the year and likely done in Carolina), Beason's arrival has kept things going. And there are more frequent flashes on tape of Davis chasing plays down from the backside and making big hits that give old-man Rucker flashbacks.
He said the pair reminded him of watching Morgan and Mark Fields in 2002 and 2004, when they were in their primes together.
"Very much so, a younger version of those two," Rucker said of Beason and Davis. "You can only imagine what they'll be like when they get more game experience underneath them.
"It's like we've seen that before, and you can see where that's going."
Beason's exactly five games into his career in the middle for the Panthers, though he looks like he was born to do the job. Davis said he's finally feeling like a linebacker, after being jerked back and forth his rookie year, and being asked to step in full-time last year.
"What a lot of people don't realize, this is just my second year at linebacker," Davis said. "I'm really still learning the position. I feel like I'm getting closer to where I want to be as far as being a backer in the NFL.
"A lot of times last year I used to catch myself with my eyes in the wrong places. A lot. Now that I'm more confident and more comfortable in what I'm doing, I'm not getting my eyes in the wrong places as much, or making the mistakes I did last year."
Veteran Na'il Diggs just grinned last week when asked about the two guys next to him, admitting they're learning on the fly.
"Those guys, every rep is important to those guys, they're learning at a very important pace," Diggs said. "Especially Jon, which everything, every play is a new experience for him. He's not seeing the same play ever. That's the NFL, every week you see a different type of team, a different type of offense. I think it's going to pay dividends to him in the long run getting this experience early and learning to prepare for these different teams."
Taking up the slack
With the increased comfort level from the back to the front, the defense has begun to climb out of the cellar.
It ranked as low as 25th in the league in total defense after five weeks, beginning its turnaround along the same time Fox started taking a more active role in defensive meetings. And while it's facing two of the tougher tests it will see all year in Green Bay today and New Orleans next week, it's climbed back to 13th in the league in yards allowed.
Since Fox took over in 2002, the defense ranked lower than eighth in the league in total defense just once, in 2004 (20th), and it had top-three finishes in 2002 and 2005.
A significant part of this year's dip has been in the lack of pressure up front. The Panthers have just nine sacks in as many games, ranking 31st in the league in sacks per pass play. It's only that high because their offensive inability has allowed teams to run the ball late, keeping the pass attempts down.
The conventional wisdom is that at some point this year, the line's going to break loose, which would help.
Because after a history in which the line has carried lackluster secondaries and a revolving-door cast of linebackers, it's the other way around now.
"We've had a couple of good games, we were able to show teams what we could do," Marshall said of the back seven. "But you never feel like you've made it. You always have to come in and get better, because you always can.
"Our D-line is good. Every knows that. They're going to get their pressure, it's just a matter of time when it's going to come. Everybody's trying to talk bad on them in the media, but in reality, our D-line is good, helps us out a lot. Our line helps us on that run and gets pressure sometimes. We've got to hold up our part on the end, and they're doing their job up front."