- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A pair of explosive defensive ends who wreak havoc on quarterbacks. Quick, disruptive defensive tackles who are a blend of experience and youth. A middle linebacker arguably playing at a level higher than anybody else at his position. A secondary without any big-name stars.
This looks oh-so familiar.
"When we started out in 2003, we said we want to be the blueprint for what people in Carolina want their defense to look like, no matter who was the coach," former Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said last week. "That's what we did.
"The guys they have now are setting the bar even higher. That blueprint we set, they are making it a little better. That's good for them. They're a good group of guys and play football the way it's meant to be played."
The 2003 Panthers were eighth in the NFL in total defense and reached the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. Theirs has been considered the best defense in team history.
The 2013 Panthers defense, ranked second and coming off a dominating 10-9 victory at San Francisco, is on its way to changing that.
Both defenses were built around the simple philosophy of stopping the run, pressuring the quarterback with four down linemen and forcing turnovers.
The names may have changed, but they're not that much different.
"It's almost a mirror image, except they're younger," said Buckner, now the defensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals.
Ditto said Mike Rucker, a former Panthers defensive end who is an analyst for the team's preseason television network.
"I was looking at them the other day and thought, 'It's almost like looking at myself in the mirror when you start breaking it down,'" he said during the buildup to Monday night's showdown between the Panthers (6-3) and Patriots (7-2).
Current middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and 2003 counterpart Dan Morgan could be clones. The same for outside linebacker Thomas Davis and Will Witherspoon, down to the fact both went to the University of Georgia.
Rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei gets disruptive penetration the same way Kris Jenkins did. Defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are pressuring the quarterback and collecting sacks like Rucker and Julius Peppers used to.
People outside of Charlotte can probably name just as many members of the 2003 secondary as they can this unit -- zero.
"This Carolina defense, in some regards, is one of the best defensive coaching jobs I've seen," said former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden, a color analyst for ESPN's "Monday Night Football."
The core of the 2003 group came from a team that two years earlier endured a 1-15 season, then sparked a strong finish in 2002 for a 7-9 record. Many on the 2013 version came from a team that two years ago was 6-10, then finished strong last season to end up 7-9.
The 2003 group was coached by head coach John Fox, a former defensive coordinator who believed in a four-man line with blitz-zone pressure. The 2013 group is coached by Ron Rivera, a former defensive coordinator who has the same philosophy.
"There's some similarities," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They're really disciplined, they're sound. There's not many plays where you feel like, 'Well, this will be an easy 10 yards here, or an easy 15 yards here.'"
Passion, hunger and an unselfish desire to win was, and is, a driving force.
"The pressure was on us [the defensive front] to stop the run without having to put a safety in the box," Buckner said. "When that quarterback drops back to pass, make the day hard on him. That's what Carolina is doing, and they're doing it better than anybody right now."
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn laughed when asked to describe defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.
"He's a small guy who has little-man syndrome -- like me," the 5-foot-8 Munnerlyn said of the 5-10 McDermott.
Munnerlyn plays with heart. McDermott coaches with heart.
McDermott, 39, came from a system in Philadelphia where, under defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, the Eagles lived and died by the blitz. He has adopted a more conservative style at Carolina -- "situational aggressive," according to Rivera.
McDermott relies on the penetration of the front four to set the tone, allowing him to be more creative in coverages and blitzes on the back side that, at times, hides deficiencies.
He methodically has added pieces to take Carolina from 28th in defense in 2011 to 10th a year ago to the Panthers' current status in which they are ranked in the top five in almost every statistical category.
"Sean McDermott deserves a lot of credit," Gruden said. "He's got some pages from the Jim Johnson playbook that he pulls out whenever he feels like making something really happen. There's [also] some creativity. It's the combination of those two things with all-out energy. It's like they hooked these guys up to jumper cables. They can really get after you."
McDermott credits the players, who in turn credit him. He likes flying under the radar, as he was coming out of William & Mary as an undersized safety playing in the shadow of Darren Sharper.
Ask McDermott what he has done to transform this unit into such a dominating force and he makes jokes about his baldness.
But the players know. Hardy calls him a "beast," which for him is the ultimate compliment.
Gruden can't wait to see what McDermott has in store for quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots.
"They lull you to sleep with this 4-3 zone system, then out of nowhere Coach McDermott ... can dial up some really good blitzes," he said. "And it's not just the style of blitzes. They're not really confusing people. They're just beating one-on-one blocks.
"They have a number of guys that can beat you in one-on-one situations. New England is going to have their hands full."
Everything begins with Kuechly, who makes the defensive calls and adjustments on the field.
"I might call him the brains of the outfit," Rivera said of Kuechly, the ninth pick of the 2012 draft. He leads the team in tackles again, one season after leading the league with 164.
The NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his effort against San Francisco, Kuechly is as humble as McDermott -- and perhaps more so. Ask Kuechly about his individual honors and he talks about teammates.
In a world of egos, Kuechly doesn't show his.
"Greatest man in the world," Hardy said. "He's got [an ego]. He's just a big enough man to put it away and put his job first."
That mentality has spread throughout a defense that requires everyone to work together to be effective. That's the way it was in '03 with Morgan, only Kuechly has the chance to be better. He's already drawing comparisons to future Hall of Famers Brian Urlacher of the Bears and Ray Lewis of the Ravens, and other all-time greats.
"I said it in our preseason game [on Aug. 22]: Luke Kuechly is the best linebacker in football. Exclamation point! Period!" Gruden said. "The guy is unbelievable."
Kuechly will be one key on Monday night. There are times when he will be matched against Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught nine passes for 143 yards and a touchdown in his last outing.
That might be a mismatch for most linebackers, but not Kuechly.
"Kuech can hang with anyone in this league," free safety Mike Mitchell said. "Have you not seen Luke? He's the best, man."
The heart and soul
Two moments have brought Rivera to tears the past three years. One came last season when Sgt. 1st Class Cedric King of the 82nd Airborne spoke to the Panthers after returning from Afghanistan, where he lost his legs.
The other came when outside linebacker Thomas Davis told Rivera he was going to play again after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in the same knee for the third time in three years.
"If that doesn't inspire you ..." Rivera said.
Davis, 30, has been an emotional spark for every member of this defense, playing arguably the best football of his career. Players see what he has endured to return and work that much harder to achieve.
In many ways, Davis is the soul of this defense. But if you had to look for a heart, Mitchell has to be among the top candidates.
Mitchell, one of five Panthers defensive players signed as free agents in 2013, has brought an attitude and toughness that was missing.
It happened almost by accident. He was signed to play strong safety beside free safety Charles Godfrey, who was considered the leader of the secondary.
But when Godfrey suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in a Week 2 loss at Buffalo, Mitchell slid into his role. The Panthers have won six of seven since.
Mitchell said it all comes down to trust. He sounds a lot like another Mike -- strong safety Mike Minter -- from 2003.
"Go hard or go home," Hardy said of Mitchell. "He's my type of guy. I love him."
"Ugggggh," he told ESPN.com last week. "Man, that's a sore subject. Yeah, I watched them play San Francisco the other day and I was like, 'See? It wasn't just us!'
"Everybody after that game was like, 'Giants, they stink.' But now they go and do it to the 49ers, so what are you going to say now?"
The Panthers sacked 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick six times. They held a San Francisco team that was averaging more than 30 points a game during a five-game winning streak to 151 yards of total offense, 45 in the second half.
"They're a talented group," Boothe said of the Panthers. "That front seven, they have guys that are stout against the run and can also get after the passer. If you can get after the passer consistently with four rushers, you're going to be tough to beat."
The simplicity of the defense is the beauty of it, which also was the case in 2003. It doesn't rely on a superstar to make a huge impact. Three different Panthers have been named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week: Hardy against the Giants, Davis against Minnesota and Kuechly.
At key times there are three to five rookies on the field.
"There's a lot of no-name players out there," Gruden said.
That's the way it was in 2003, when outside of Peppers there weren't a lot of household names. But by the end of the year people knew who they were.
This unit is doing the same thing, and Monday's game against New England will expose the Panthers' D to the entire country.
"They match up with anybody," Buckner said. "That defense travels. If they didn't prove it Sunday, you're never going to give them credit."
Unless, that is, they do the same thing to Brady and the Patriots. Buckner likes their chances.
"They're young and energetic," he said. "I don't think they know what pressure is. They go out there and play like their hair is on fire."
This looks oh-so familiar.
Carolina's dominant D is reminiscent of the unit that led the franchise's Super Bowl run 10 years ago.