CHARLOTTE -- There are still problems. Clearly there are problems.
But for a Carolina Panthers defense which had sprung leaks lately, Monday's 38-23 win over Tampa Bay was one to relish.
"It's a good starting point at a pivotal time in the season," middle linebacker Jon Beason said.
The defense had been taking on water for the last month, allowing at least 130 rushing yards in four straight games, and 32.7 points per game the previous three. But while the Panthers gave up some deep passes they'd like back, they looked down at the 86 rushing yards allowed and five sacks and declared Monday's win a good one.
"We've still got to improve, got to get better, because if you're not, you're getting worse," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said early Tuesday morning. "We kind of turned the corner. We had a rough month of November on defense. It's like that sometimes. It's not always going to be as good as you want.
"We got over the hump, grew up, matured a little bit as a defense, and now we're pushing forward."
The Panthers need to continue to make those strides. They were once the league's second-ranked scoring defense, but had slipped over the last month. They always knew they had a return to form in them, it just took the bright lights of Monday to make that evident.
"We already know," defensive end Julius Peppers said when asked about the defense reasserting itself. "It's nothing to prove, nothing to show anybody. We know we have a good defense, and we know we have a good team. We've just got to play like that. The past three weeks we didn't play like that, but now we did.
"That's really what it is. It's not a statement game or trying to prove anything to anybody. We already know what we have in here is pretty good."
Perhaps so, but recent results had wounded their pride, and made them wonder if they could be the dominant unit they'd shown signs of earlier.
Through the first two months, they were known for shutting down a parade of Pro Bowl running backs, and keeping people out of the end zone. Then, it all went away.
The fact the wins kept coming was nice, but they needed the reassurance they got Monday. It started early, when they won the coin toss and elected to give Tampa Bay the ball, to put the initial tone of the game in the hands of the side that had struggled the most.
They responded with a three-and-out.
"It was very big," strong safety Chris Harris said. "We had kind of lost our swagger a little bit, and I felt like we picked it back up this week. To come out the first drive, we hold them, it was big for us. To start on defense, I love that."
In many respects, the plan used to derail Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia (who had beaten the Panthers five straight times) was similar to the old Michael Vick rules. Asked why this was so much better than previous meetings, Peppers answered simply: "Better game plan."
They used a spy at times to make sure he didn't break free from the pocket, where his accuracy on the move makes him most dangerous. Then they concentrated on getting a pass rush up the middle so their ends could contain his running lanes.
"The biggest thing, our tackles up front were pushing the pocket, getting three yards deep and then getting hands up, trying to bat the balls down," Lewis said. "Garcia's a shorter quarterback, so you want to make him throw over our hands and we did that, Then our ends did a great job rushing. We had great pressure off the corner, so if he stepped up, we were at his ankles, at his hands, batting at the ball, something.
"We never let him set his feet and get comfortable."
The Bucs threw for 321 yards, 200 of those landing in the hands of Antonio Bryant. Many came on coverage breakdowns, where the Panthers are still struggling to get the secondary tightened up. But since Tampa's offense is based on running the ball and quick, timing passes, the fact the Panthers disrupted that stood as a victory.
"We did a good job of taking away what they really wanted to do, which was the run and the short checkdowns, so we forced them to do other things," Peppers said. "We feel pretty comfortable. We had a great game plan coming into this game. We knew everything they were going to try to do.
"And for the most part, we had it pretty much under control. There were a few explosive plays that we really gave them. I give them credit for making the plays, but a lot of that stuff was mistakes on our part."
The pressure eventually got to Garcia, and Beason said much of that had to do with good coverage on the backside. Carolina blitzed some early, but pulled back on that in the second half and let the front four take care of Garcia.
The mistakes might be cleaned up, but for the Panthers, the important part was that they made the plays when necessary -- such as Peppers' third-down sack in the fourth quarter which enabled them to make it a two-score lead.
"Well that's pretty much been the motto of our defense the second half of the season," Harris said. "We are made of elastic, so we just keep bending but we are not going to break. We continue to come up with the plays when we need to."
• Panthers notes • 4C