CHARLOTTE -- Even though the Carolina Panthers' defensive line looks different than ever, it's still productive, far more than last year's line.
The Panthers remade their trademark unit this offseason, trading defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and losing end Mike Rucker to retirement. But after a lackluster 2007, they're starting to show signs of progress.
Journeyman Tyler Brayton was brought in to replace Rucker, backup Charles Johnson is emerging, and they're using Damione Lewis in the starting lineup now, along with playing a more aggressive scheme up front.
"That's why football is the ultimate of team games," coach John Fox said. "Not slighting anybody else, but somebody was a nobody at sometime, and people develop names for themselves. Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton, I think, are playing very well. It's still early, but they are playing good team defense."
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The biggest difference has been the return to form of Julius Peppers.
He leads all the Panthers linemen in tackles and has 3.0 sacks and eight pressures in five games. Last year, he had just 2.5 sacks, his worst season to date.
"Julius is back," Tampa Bay coach John Gruden said. "He is an upper-echelon player in the world, and he brings a lot to the Panthers. ... Julius is healthy, and when he's healthy, he's a train wreck.
"He's a problem for people."
He has been for the Bucs. In 11 career games against Tampa Bay, Peppers has 11.0 sacks and 24 pressures, along with two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception return for a touchdown.
As good as he's been this year, however, the rest of the line is catching up. The Panthers' linemen have 8.0 sacks as a group this year. Last season, they managed just 14.5 for the entire season. Part of that is because of the new design of their defense, which was done to create more pressure.
"They changed their scheme, they changed some things and did a good job in the offseason, and nobody's blocking them," Gruden said. "These guys are doing a great job on defense."