CHARLOTTE -- Lost in the way the Carolina Panthers have stonewalled a parade of elite running backs this season is that they're actually better (statistically) against the pass, giving up just 156 yards per game to rank third in the league.
"We've played good team defense," coach John Fox said, emphasizing the word 'team.'
"Our guys are playing well together. They are trusting each other in their assignments. Whether it's run or pass, we've been pretty solid. We haven't arrived yet, but we've been pretty solid, and we'll have another stiff test this weekend."
Though Fox hedged on whether the West Coast offense gives them problems, they have struggled with it. With a premium on a quarterback who can move and throw, and short, timing-pattern passes, it's long been something the Panthers have had to work through.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Mostly, that's because a defense built on getting pressure on quarterbacks has a hard time doing so against three-step drops.
"Teams try to get the ball out quick because of the fear of our D-line," cornerback Ken Lucas said. "We know we've got to be able to have good tight coverage against them. West Coast offense is timing. We have to disrupt that."
Even if the system isn't the problem, Jeff Garcia is. There's no official word, but he's expected to get the start for Tampa Bay this weekend. That's good for the Bucs. He's won four straight starts against the Panthers, dating back through several stops. He beat them on the road last year, with Philadelphia in 2006 and twice with San Francisco in 2001.
At 38, he can still move, which creates a different set of problems. But mostly, it's his accuracy and decision-making which makes it tougher.
"They get the ball out fast to their receivers," cornerback Richard Marshall said. "You've got to play closer coverage because of how fast the ball comes out and how they run their routes. They're different than other teams seen this season. Just quicker out of their breaks.
"When they're coming out of a break, the ball could be coming now. When they're breaking, it's coming. He throws on their break, so they're running into it. The ball is always coming out fast. We've got to know that, watch film and see what to key on."
Lucas said the scheme puts a premium on playing physical with their receivers, and it takes away some of the confusion they've tried to create. The Panthers have been more active disguising defenses this year, but that might be on hold for a week.
"It's a quick rhythm offense where we're going to have to be on our Ps and Qs," Lucas said. "You can't disguise too much because they're going to do what they do anyway. Disguising isn't going to help us out at all."
Maybe not, but what they've been doing has been impressive.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden rattled off a laundry list of things about the Panthers' defense. Fox laughed and said Gruden was "killing us with kindness," but Gruden went on and on.
"They got great coverage ability there," he said. "Those three corners stack up against any other three in football. Between (Chris) Gamble, Lucas and Marshall, they give you problems. They hammer you with blitzes, they play a disciplined zone, and they all can run and hit. And they're having fun right now."
Of course, they could be having more if they had better hands, allowing Lucas to laugh at himself.
The Panthers secondary has only three interceptions, though it could have been at least four or five more but for drops.
"They're going to come, and they're going to come in bunches," Lucas said. "Just don't pressure yourself, just continue to be the player you have been. As long as we put ourselves in position, we're going to get opportunities to get turnovers. We just have to catch them when they come."
Lucas was asked if he envied Lester Hayes, the former Raiders defensive back who kept his helmet caked with Stickum for a better grip.
"We need it," Lucas said. "Just me and Gamble alone, we'd probably have seven interceptions right now if we did have Stickum on our hands. We both take pride in having good ball skills. We both have been failing at that so far. We just got to start catching those balls that come to us.
"If we do that, we really would be a good defense, because we're giving teams more opportunities when we don't make those plays."