Carolina Panthers

Defense knows it has to step up

CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers' defense has been playing near its aggressive best the last month.

They know they'll need to get even better over the next month to stay competitive.

The Panthers are tied for fifth in the league with 18 takeaways this season, with 12 of those coming over the last four games. Only four teams have more since Week 4, and two of those teams (New England and Tennessee) didn't have a bye week during that span, giving them five games to do so. The other two are San Diego and Atlanta, which will visit Bank of America Stadium today.

"It's definitely something that will help you win ball games, by getting turnovers," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "The more times your offense can touch the ball, hopefully more times than not it's going to help you.

"We have to keep that going. We can't go backward in one category and up in another. So if we can keep that category going in the right direction, then find another category we can go straight ahead in, we'll be making some progress."

The defense understands the need for such continued aggressive play, given the confusion surrounding its offense, with its quarterback-of-the-week approach.

Safety Chris Harris, who leads the team with four takeaways (three fumble recovers and an interception, plus three forced fumbles), said he's challenged his teammates in the secondary last week to turn those plays into points.

"I said hey, we need to score," Harris said. "There's no rule in football that says we can't score. Anything we can do, get as many turnovers as possible, get our offense as many chances at the ball as we can, that's our job."

Rucker said as the defense settles in together, and gets to know some of the new blitz packages installed over the last month, things could well continue at this pace.

I think when you know you're stuff you're able to play faster and stronger," he said. "I think the light's starting to come on. Guys are getting turnovers, playing physical. Now we've got to get some turnovers into the end zone, do things like that to help us win."

• THE MORE THE MERRIER: Just in case they need more than one healthy quarterback today, the Panthers promoted quarterback Drew Olson after three days on the practice squad.

To make room on the active roster for Olson, they waived fullback Billy Latsko, who'll be back on the practice squad next week.

If Vinny Testaverde (Achilles) can't go today, Olson would back up Matt Moore, who he once bumped out of the UCLA job, forcing Moore to transfer to Oregon State.

Moore's appeared in three games this year, and he'd be the fourth starter the Panthers have put on the field in a seven-game span.

"I think if you show poise and guys have trust in you, I think that's a big thing," Moore said last week when asked about his chance. "All the physical things will fall into place. If you go in there and look everybody in the eye and kind of have confidence and play like you've been well prepared, I think you'll be all right."

• DOESN'T NEED TO BE SAID: Panthers receiver Steve Smith has clearly matured.

He's just not that interested in talking about it, since he believes some have made up their minds on him long ago and aren't interested in changing.

When he was asked this week if his rejection of Falcons corner DeAngelo Hall's attempted baiting in September was evidence of growth, he shrugged.

"That's you writing an article, you speak to it," Smith said. "You're basically asking me what? You want me to tell you how much I've grown. My job's not to tell you how much I've grown, because obviously you can tell how much I've grown. If you can't, that just shows where your mindset is.

"If you're asking me to give you accounts or ring my bell or tell you how good I've progressed, I'm not going to do that. The way I walk around in the world is not hoping everybody understands me or I understand them.

"You try to do your best at parenting, playing football, everything. So, I can't show you how much I've grown if you don't open your eyes anyway."

• WELL, YEAH: Though it almost seems so obvious as to be ridiculous, it still begged to be quantified.

But yes, today's game will feature the two oldest players in the league, with 47-year-old Atlanta kicker Morten Andersen and Testaverde, who'll turn 44 Tuesday.

The next three, in order, are 43-year-old Jacksonville kicker John Carney, 41-year-old Giants punter Jeff Feagles and Baltimore kicker Matt Stover, a mere child at 39.

• EXTRA POINTS: Former Panthers special teams captain Karl Hankton was hanging around practice last week.

He wasn't there to coach, just visiting. But when he it was suggested he might be able to come in and help a struggling kicking game, he laughed.

"All it takes is a phone call, man," Hankton said. ...

The good news keeps coming in for the Panthers.

Jacksonville's Pro Bowl defensive tackle, Marcus Stroud, has decided not to appeal his four-week suspension for violating the league's steroids and substance abuse policy.

He'll miss the Jaguars AFC games against Tennessee, San Diego, Buffalo and Indianapolis, but he'll be back just in time for the Panthers' visit there on Dec. 9.

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