<
>

Panthers have best DL in NFL

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner is the elder statesman of
what may be the best front four in the NFL. He will tell you without any
hesitation why the Panthers have faced so many play-action passes and
three-step drops this season.

"Five offensive linemen are not going to block the four of us," Buckner said.
"That's just not possible. I don't care who you are. Five-on-four with a
straight drop-back -- that's just not going to happen."

That's what the Panthers hope, anyway. They have invested a staggering $127.5
million in contracts for defensive end Julius Peppers, defensive end Mike Rucker, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins
and Buckner, all of whom are signed through at least the 2007 season. It was
that front four that helped push the Panthers to the Super Bowl last season,
but that front four also has had a mixed-bag start for Carolina so far in
2004.

Taking on Green Bay in the Monday-night opener, Carolina's defense faltered.
Green Bay's Ahman Green ran for 119 yards and scored three touchdowns to
send the Panthers to a 24-14 loss in front of a national TV audience.
The following week, however, the front four showed up again. Peppers posted a
pair of sacks, Jenkins wreaked havoc inside and the Panthers held the
explosive Chiefs to 10 offensive points in a 28-17 win.

Jenkins strained his shoulder in the win, and that sent chills down the
collective spine of a Panthers team that already has lost wide receiver Steve Smith for
at least half the season to a broken leg and running back Stephen Davis for a couple
of weeks due to knee surgery. Even with the injury hampering him, Jenkins
kept putting himself back into the game until defensive coordinator Mike
Trgovac ordered him to take a seat on the bench.

"(Football) just means so much to Kris," said Trgovac. "It really means so
much to all four of those guys up front. It's a very prideful unit."

Peppers ranks as the unit's most well-known player thanks to his status as
the second overall selection in the 2002 draft and his widely publicized,
multisport career in college at North Carolina. His No. 90 jersey -- along
with quarterback Jake Delhomme's No 17 -- dominates the stands at Bank of America
Stadium.

But for all the hype that heads Peppers' way, Carolina's defensive front four
really begins with Jenkins. The Panthers' defensive right tackle is
considered by many to be one of the NFL's top two or three defensive tackles
-- he has earned a trip to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons -- but for
Jenkins, there is no argument.

"I'll go ahead and say I'm the best," Jenkins said. "But I'm not saying it in
a Warren Sapp kind of way. I'm not over here smelling myself, you know what
I mean? I'm going to keep working every day to try and be the best, because
just when you get sure of yourself in this league, it all goes away."

The 6-foot-4, 335-pound Jenkins has the bulk to clog the middle in the running
game, but he also has the athleticism and the quickness to be an effective
pass rusher.

"He's a monster, basically," Buckner said. "Usually a guy that big is going
to be a Ted Washington type and just stop the run. But Jenkins is quick
enough to get to the quarterback, too."

Playing beside Jenkins at defensive right end is Rucker, who also earned a
trip to Honolulu in 2003 after leading Carolina with 12 sacks. Rucker is a
relentless worker who prides himself on getting more sacks in the second
half of games than in the first.

"Not to diminish his athleticism, but Mike doesn't have the physical gifts of
Julius," Trgovac said. "If you're going to block him, though, bring your
lunch pail."

Rucker also is known as the Panthers' biggest trash talker -- he once had to
come out of a game because he hyperventilated from talking so much. He knows
how to take the art form to the extreme. But Rucker has a few trash-talking
ground rules that are somewhat unique in the NFL: He never curses, and he
never talks about anyone's mama.

Peppers, the left defensive end, is the closest thing the Panthers have to an
athletic freak. He is powerful, he's fast and he knows all about the
pressure of the big stage, having played in both the Final Four and the
Super Bowl.

"He can run with defensive backs and is stronger than offensive tackles,"
Buckner said.

Trgovac makes it a point to say that opponents pay so much attention to
Peppers that it gets frustrating for the 24-year-old. Peppers' sack total
dropped from 12 in 12 games in 2002 to seven in 16 games in 2003.

Considering Peppers' suspension during his rookie year in which he sat out
four games for violating the league's banned-substance policy, there was
talk that Peppers' stellar rookie season may have been about more than just
his skills. But Trgovac dismisses that kind of nonsense.

"There are always going be a lot of people around him," Trgovac said. "So
with Julius, we keep working on how to beat double-teams."

Buckner, in his 11th season, is the coach
on the field. He's a thinker and a film watcher, always alert for tendencies
he can exploit. Buckner believes it is a blue-collar, hardworking approach
that has allowed the Panthers to turn the franchise around from a 1-15 team
three years ago to NFC champs in 2003.

There is depth in the line as well.

The Panthers feature a couple of solid reserves on the current squad. Defensive end Al
Wallace
, who worked as an assistant principal in 2001 when he was out of
football entirely, posted five sacks and two interceptions in 2003 as a
backup. Kindal Moorehead is the top defensive tackle backup, and his versatility helps
keep the Panthers fresh. The defensive line's familiarity with one another
keeps the unit stable as well.

"What (head coach) John Fox has done here (on defense) is just the opposite
of what so many other teams do," Buckner said. "So much of the offseason in
the NFL is about, 'Who's going to get Terrell Owens? Who's going to get this
big-name running back?' It's teams looking for skill players, building from
the outside-in. Coach Fox is old-fashioned -- he has built us from the inside
out."

Buckner is right. Consider that of the starting front four, all but Buckner
came through the draft. And certainly, it's not a perfect unit.

Buckner was suspended in 2002 for testing positive for a banned
supplement. Rucker started his career slowly, recording only one start and a
total of 5½ sacks in his first two NFL seasons. Jenkins was a rookie
during the Panthers' horrid 1-15 season of 2001 and played unevenly. He won
a starting job, then lost it as he slept through some meetings (in part
because of a then-undiagnosed sleep disorder).

But the Panthers' current front four slowly came together. They didn't miss a
beat when then-defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio made the move to the
head-coaching job in Jacksonville, and Trgovac, the former defensive line coach, was
promoted. Under Del Rio and Trogvac's guidance, they have become a whole lot
better than the last time Carolina got excited about its D-line.

Only diehard Carolina fans remember the dream-turned-nightmare unit of Chuck
Smith, Reggie White, Sean Gilbert and Eric Swann -- all of whom were well on
the decline before they ever got to Charlotte.

In fact, the Panthers' current front four might be getting better. A trip to
the Super Bowl might leave some squads content with having turned things
around, but for Carolina, last season's surprising run may have just been
the beginning. The players certainly believe that they have yet to play
their best football, and it is the D-line that is expected to be the
catalyst for the ballclub.

A trip to the Super Bowl might have been great, but a Vince Lombardi Trophy --
or two or three -- might finally give the boys up front some satisfaction.

"We put a whole lot of pressure on our defensive line," Trgovac said. "But
this group is up to it. And it better be."

Best of the rest

2. Philadelphia Eagles
Starters: DRE Derrick Burgess (26 years old), DT Corey Simon (27), DT Darwin
Walker
(27), DLE Jevon Kearse (28).

EaglesThe Panthers don't boast the only defensive line with myriad Pro Bowl
personnel. Simon and Kearse provide the Eagles
with a most impressive one-two punch. Without Kearse, the Eagles were
balancing between adequate and average. With Kearse, even elite offensive
lines, like Minnesota's, can appear pedestrian for long stretches.

"(Jevon)
is one of the better athletes I've ever seen," said Jim Johnson, veteran
defensive coordinator of the Eagles.


Johnson bounced through the Eagles'
facility brimming with confidence on March 2, the day head coach Andy Reid
brought news of Kearse's imminent signing. If he stays healthy, Kearse can
bank on playing defensive roles he's only dreamed of. In a Week 2
thrashing of the Vikings' front five, Kearse played what Johnson calls a
"joker" role, lining up as an inside linebacker, defensive end and outside
linebacker, depending on the call from the sideline. On most Sundays, he'll
rush from the left side as a down lineman; he played the right side in
Tennessee last season.

"He's the kind of athlete we can move around,"
Johnson said. "We got him comfortable with the scheme, and we're moving him
around now."

Kearse is drawing attention beyond double-teams, opening lanes
for Burgess, Walker and Simon.

"Our tackles aren't
the biggest tackles in the world," Johnson said of Simon (6-2, 293) and
Walker (6-3, 294), who thrive on uncanny lower-body bulk for power and
quickness. "Hollis is a big guy weight-wise. But we get a push. Corey and
Walker are two very good pass-rushing tackles. Hollis Thomas and Sam Rayburn
are more run-type tackles. We've always felt with Corey and Walker, we're
getting enough push in the middle. With four tackles, we rotate them on
first and second down, and that makes a difference, too."

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Starters: DRE Simeon Rice (30 years old), DT Anthony McFarland (26), DT
Chartric Darby (28), DLE Greg Spires (30).

BucsThe one-man hype machine has left the building, but the Buccaneers are as
dominant as ever, even without Warren Sapp in the middle of the defensive
line. The Buccaneers have used McFarland as a combo-tackle in their
Cover-2 base defense, and many scouts opined that McFarland surpassed Sapp
in on-field performance last season. The line's early-season showing was
impressive, as opponents were largely held in check. McFarland posted two
sacks in the first two games, and Rice is always a threat to post big sack
numbers. Rice has averaged 11.6 sacks per season since '96.

Even without the in-house hype, the Buccaneers haven't lost their swagger.

"It's a completely different dynamic," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "It's not the
same as it once was. When Warren was Warren, and he was great, and Simeon
came in and he was spectacular, and we had Anthony playing under tackle and
whoever else -- Marcus Jones and the myriad of other guys at D-end -- those
were great teams. I think the guys now know their roles are a little
different. It's not the same monster group of guys up there who are going to
go up and just kill everybody. Now, Chuck Darby, our nose tackle, is a
gritty dude who does everything right. Anthony's trying to replace Sapp, and
the guy's legend."

Barber said Spires is extremely underrated and
wears the tag as the workhorse of the defense.

4. Seattle Seahawks
Starters: DRE Grant Wistrom (28 years old), DRT Rashad Moore (25), DLT Cedric
Woodard
(27), DLE Chike Okeafor (28).

SeahawksSeattle was a sexy "sleeper" pick for the Super Bowl, but most
prognosticators were counting on a dominant offense to carry the Seahawks
into February. But no team has allowed fewer than the 13 points surrendered
by the Seattle defense through three games, and for the first time since
Chuck Knox's 1991 Seahawks, opponents scored seven or fewer points in
consecutive games.

Wistrom came to Seattle via unrestricted free
agency. The Seahawks were interested in Jevon Kearse, but the Eagles pounced
too quickly. In Wistrom, Seattle believes it landed a better all-around
defensive end and a superior leader.

While his performance is no surprise,
the play of Moore and Woodard, both on the other side of
310 pounds, has been a surprise to those outside the Seahawks' locker room.
Moreover, the Seahawks couldn't be more pleased with their depth on the
interior. First-round pick Marcus Tubbs and Rocky Bernard, who has three
sacks through three games, will do their best to help Seahawks fans forget
about John Randle, Chad Eaton and Norman Hand.

Head coach Mike Holmgren
credited Randle with lighting a fire beneath Moore last season, when Randle
verbally and emotionally tortured the rookie with a history of
underachieving. Okeafor is the pass rusher in the bunch. He's not
a monster, but his motor never stops, an advantage over plodding right
tackles.

5. Jacksonville Jaguars
Starters: DRE Brandon Green (24 years old), DRT John Henderson (25), DLT
Marcus Stroud (26) DLE Lionel Barnes (28).

JaguarsGo ahead, name one of two starting defensive ends in Jacksonville? And don't
say Tony Brackens, Hugh Douglas or even Paul Spicer. You aren't in the
minority if Barnes, Green, Rob Meier and Bobby McCray didn't
roll off your tongue, but these were the starting candidates remaining after
Douglas and Brackens were cut and Spicer suffered a broken leg in Week 2.
These players are keen to the fact that the Jaguars' defense has been
dominant because of the play of Stroud and Henderson.


"Right
now, Marcus and John see things in slow motion," said Ray Hamilton, Jaguars
DL coach. "They get the grasp of what we're talking about, how people are
trying to attack them. The game is coming to them, and they know how to
react to it."

Middle linebacker Mike Peterson is among the league leaders in tackles, and
strong safety Donovin Darius isn't far behind, but Hamilton points out that both
players owe a debt of gratitude, or at least a thank-you, to the tackle duo that
has been a springboard for their success.

"Any linebacker would love to play
behind John and Marcus," Hamilton said. "They knock the guards back, keep
the guards and the centers off the linebackers. Mike Peterson is having a
great season, and one part of it is that John and Marcus do a great job of
keeping him clean."

Stroud moves like a 275-pounder, a stunning aberration
to offensive guards accustomed to squaring off against slow-footed
330-pounders. He's constantly double-teamed, but his tedious preparation and
football intelligence keep Stroud ahead of the game. Stroud and an upstart
linebacker corps are the main reasons the Jaguars hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher
in 17 games before Titans running back Chris Brown snapped the streak by rushing for
101 yards in Week 3.

Henderson is underrated -- at 6-7, 317, you'd think
he'd be hard to miss.

"John is a big, powerful guy," Hamilton said. "When he
hunkers down in there, even when he sees two or three guys on him, they just
can't move him. John gets around pretty well, too. He's not known as a speed
guy, but he's quick. Marcus plays fast; John plays with strength, just kind
of kills people at the point of attack."

Honorable mention

Minnesota Vikings
Starters: DRE Kenechi Udeze, NT Chris Hovan, UT Kevin Williams, DLE Kenny
Mixon
.

Dallas Cowboys
Starters: DRE Greg Ellis, NT Leonardo Carson, DLT La'Roi Glover, DLE
Marcellus Wiley.

Pro Football Weekly Material from Pro Football Weekly.
Visit PFW's web site at http://www.profootballweekly.com