Carolina Panthers

Panthers' defense steps up in win

The Panthers' Julius Peppers sacked Arizona's Kurt Warner for his first sack of the season.
The Panthers' Julius Peppers sacked Arizona's Kurt Warner for his first sack of the season.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When the Carolina Panthers' defense is playing the way it imagines, it can count on Julius Peppers.

When it's playing the way it dream abouts, it get contributions from guys such as Deke Cooper.

Knowing the game plan was going to be conservative on the other side, the Panthers went to work on defense, and the result was a jackhammer-steady pounding of the Arizona offense in their 25-10 win.

"The last two weeks, I think they've been real gritty," coach John Fox said. "We had to look in the mirror a little bit after the first few games, and guys challenged each other.

"Not that we've arrived by any stretch, but we've been pretty salty the last two weeks."

Since they were playing with a short-time backup (Vinny Testaverde) the Panthers evened the score in the first quarter, when Peppers sacked Arizona starter Kurt Warner, landing on his left elbow and knocking him out of the game. Peppers collected that loose ball, one of the five turnovers the Panthers forced on the day.

Peppers and his teammates were able to laugh about his other half-sack, which they thought should have gone fully to defensive tackle Damione Lewis, but for the last few weeks, such things have been no laughing matter.

When asked about the sack, Peppers looked straight ahead, with little emotion, and said: "Y'all are going to have to find something else to write about."

It was an issue because he hadn't had one yet, the fourth straight year he's experienced a five-game drought. He had totaled 34.5 sacks during the previous three seasons, which is why the Panthers haven't been panicking about it.

Of course, he had 11, 12 and nine pressures during those five-game streaks, and he had just two this year, a sign something's been amiss whether they want to admit it or not.

"He's made a couple plays throughout the season, they just haven't been sacks," Fox said. "A lot's been made of that on the outside, and understandably so. We know what that's about. But I think Julius has continued to try to work. It's like a batter when he's in a slump. They press and try different things.

"Sometimes just going back to basics (works). I think that's what Julius did this week in preparation, and what he was able to do today."

Of course, they weren't planning on the other guys who made significant impacts; they couldn't have.

They actually benched Cooper in Week 3 because he hadn't made a play, but he got his job back when newcomer Marquand Manuel proved himself to be unready. He was back in the starting lineup the following week, and back in the mix Sunday.

His first interception bounced first off the hands of cornerback Richard Marshall -- "You're welcome," Marshall said with a laugh as he walked past Cooper's knot of reporters -- and the second was on a late heave by Cards quarterback Tim Rattay.

"The defense had to step up today, we went through almost three quarterbacks today," Cooper said. "We're definitely riding off that high we had last week. The defense stepped up big, and we're trying to put a few wins together."

And even though they've got two weeks to prepare for their next game, they think what's been accomplished the last two weeks will have a cumulative effect, that they're getting their defense back to where they thought it should have been the whole time.

"A couple weeks ago a bunch of people thought the sky was falling," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "This is what this locker room is all about, what this sport is all about is sticking together and fighting through these rough times. And it's going to be something else in front of us we don't know about yet.

"But we feel the camaraderie, we trust in each other, we come up with big plays and we find a way to win. This is how we used to do it a few years ago, we found a way to win. We're starting to feel that vibe again."