CHARLOTTE -- The team's not all that much different than it ever was.
The opposition's never been tougher.
So, for the Carolina Panthers' run defense to have played as well as it has through four weeks, it has to be something beyond the conventional, something beyond scheme, something that can only be described in the most vague and intangible terms.
"It's all about discipline," defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
"It's about trust," added defensive tackle Damione Lewis.
"The attitude is different," safety Chris Harris offered.
Whatever the reason, it's working.
On the surface, the Panthers' rush defense stats don't look so amazing. They rank 19th in the league in rush defense, giving up 114.3 yards per game. But considering their opponents, that's pretty remarkable. Through four games, the Panthers have faced the league's leading rusher three times. None of them have gotten to 100 yards.
"We challenged each other every week not to give up 100 yards to any rusher," Harris said. "We've done a good job so far, and the guy this week had 198 last week, so we've got our hands full again."
Atlanta's best in the league in the rush offense stats, and Chicago and Minnesota are in the top 10. The outlier is San Diego (17th), which has LaDainian Tomlinson. Between them, those four are averaging 150.2 yards per game in their non-Panthers games, which makes Carolina's 114.3 allowed sound much better.
The Panthers' opponents' average rank in rushing offense is 8.5. None of the league's top five rush defenses has a better opponent ranking than 18.5. There's a chicken-egg argument there, but the bottom line is that the Panthers' run defense has been very good.
Taken on the basis of the individual parts, it's hard to figure. But perhaps that's the secret.
"I think they play together," said Kansas City running back Larry Johnson, who'll try to solve the puzzle today. "It's not one guy that stands out, saying 'It's on me, I'm the one that's making the plays.' Their defense is a unit that plays together."
There were as many variations on that theme as guys talking about it last week.
However hard it might be to quantify, they're getting along better, and getting on opponents better at the same time.
"We're a tight group," Lewis said. "Everybody likes each other, there's no egos, and everybody's meshing and enjoying playing together more than anything."
They didn't get to be good at stopping the run by singing Kum-bah-yah in the meeting room, though there is something to the assertion.
Any discussion of how run defense works invariably turns to a discussion of trust. Players and coaches use jargon such as "gap integrity," but the bottom line is all 11 players have to believe that the other 10 are going to be where they said they're going to be when they said they're going to be there. Trgovac said that because more and more NFL offenses are using misdirection runs with greater frequency, having the patience to stay in your gap even when the play moves away from you is key. And so far, his group has done that.
"You have to trust one another because everybody's got an assignment," Trgovac said. "If you try to make a play you're not supposed to make because you don't trust the guy behind you to be where he's supposed to be, it might work for a few times. But it will eventually break down if there's no discipline or gap integrity. I think with this group we have, these guys really trust one another. They know this guy's going to be in this gap, this guy's going to be in his.
"We've cut down on the explosive runs, and that was one of our objectives. That happens when guys get frustrated, or guys don't trust one another. Guys think 'He's supposed to be here but he's never there, so I'm going to do this.' That's how things break down."
No one's calling any names, but it doesn't take long to come up with a theory. There are really only three personnel changes from last year's defense to this year's. Rookie safety Charles Godfrey replaced Deke Cooper. Tyler Brayton replaced renowned run-stopper Mike Rucker. And Lewis is in the spot formerly manned by Kris Jenkins.
To lay past failures solely at his feet would be unfair, but Jenkins does have a reputation among scouts as a freelancer, a guy who was once able to make super individual plays because of his talent, but could get himself out of position because he lacked the discipline that's become such a buzz word around here.
But there's no use kicking at him anymore, as all around have expressed (either out loud or in private) a relief that he's gone.
What matters now is how the pieces collected came together, and that's a process they saw first in the preseason. The Panthers' starters gave up just three points during the exhibition season, a hint that they were onto something as they rebuilt a once-proud defense.
"You get a bunch of guys on that same page, whatever page it's on, and that's a good thing," linebacker Na'il Diggs said. "I think in the preseason we kind of wowed ourselves a little bit. We kind of realized after the games how well we were doing. People were like 'Wow, you know what, we can really be that good.' We know we're talented, we know what we're capable of doing.
"We know that a lot of the things offenses get off of us is our mistakes, it's on us. It's our fault. We're jumping offsides, penalties, busted coverage here and there. As long as everybody keeps their head on straight about that kind of stuff and realize that's the only way people are going to get stuff on you, it can do a lot as far as confidence and character."