Over the past two weeks, the Carolina Panthers have limited their opponents to 23 points and only two touchdowns while posting back-to-back road wins.
That's a dramatic improvement over the first four weeks of the season.
Among the reasons for the change has been the play of safeties Chris Harris and Deke Cooper, both of whom have made huge strides since Week 4, as well as the stability rookie Jon Beason has provided at middle linebacker.
Harris, acquired from the Chicago Bears in training camp for a fifth-round draft pick, is looking like quite a pickup for the Panthers. He's forced three fumbles, recovered two and made an interception. Harris has forced a turnover in four of Carolina's six games. On Sunday, he stripped Larry Fitzgerald of the football on the game's first drive, recovering it at the Arizona 43.
Cooper, a free agent pickup in the offseason who was elevated to a starting role when Nate Salley went down for the season with a knee injury, had two interceptions on Sunday against Arizona and has had a hand in two fumbles this year.
"Some of our struggles early in the season, I think you've got to understand we had two new safeties and a wide variety of middle linebackers, who are in essence the quarterback of your defense. So we had some tough things happen to us that we've had to deal with," coach John Fox said. "I think it's a tribute to both Chris Harris and Deke Cooper that they hung in there and they kept growing with time, and they've gotten better."
Cooper said it's no coincidence that the defense has stepped up since defensive tackle Kris Jenkins questioned his team's heart following a loss to Tampa Bay at home in Week 4. That prompted a team meeting to air concerns, and since then the defense has played with a renewed fire.
"I think everyone had to look in the mirror," Cooper said. "We hadn't been playing well those first four games. But there is a lot of new faces, and it takes time to jell. It takes time for that stuff happen, and I think that's starting to get that."
Of course, the Panthers defense has yet to be challenged by a top-notch quarterback this season other than perhaps Marc Bulger in Week 1. That will change after the bye week when the Panthers face Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
It's too bad for the Panthers that game is at home.
Carolina has done all of its damage on the road, where it is 4-0 this season. In a strange twist, the Panthers have been blown out in their two home games by Houston and Tampa Bay.
But they have to be encouraged by the play of the defense, especially given their injury problems at quarterback.
"I think the last two weeks have been real gritty," Fox said. "You know we had to look in the mirror a little bit after the first few games and guys challenged each other. Not that we've arrived by any stretch, but I think we've been pretty salty the last two weeks."
--DE Julius Peppers is finally starting to show up for the Panthers.
One week after blocking a field goal to spur Carolina on to a victory against New Orleans, Peppers put forth this stat line against Arizona -- seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one pressure and one very sore opposing quarterback.
Peppers, who has averaged better than 10 sacks per season his first five years in the league, finally found the quarterback in the first quarter of Carolina's 25-10 win over the Cardinals, snapping a career-long string of six games without a sack.
He shared the first sack with Damione Lewis and then took care of Kurt Warner on his own a few minutes later, sacking him on a stunt play near midfield, jarring the ball loose and then recovering it. Warner left the game with an elbow injury and did not return.
After the game, Peppers added another sack -- this time on the local media that has been riding him pretty hard this season for failing to get to the quarterback.
"It's always nice (to get the first one) -- now you have to find something else to write about," Peppers said.
Peppers said he's never been worried about his sack total.
"You ain't thinking about it," Peppers said. "When they come, they come in bunches. Hopefully they will keep coming."
Coach John Fox said he was never concerned about Peppers' performance.
"To be able to play at this point in his life is a tribute to him taking care of himself," coach John Fox said. "To be able to play and do the things he does physically at his age I think is a testament of how hard he's worked. I mean, he's in the weight room. He's a guy's guy, and he's a guy you like being around. You can sense that from the guys playing around him in just the short time he's been here."
--FS Deke Cooper had two interceptions of Tim Rattay on Sunday, nearly matching his career total (three) coming into the game. The first one was a bizarre play with the ball hitting off an Arizona receiver and then off the body of CB Richard Marshall, who was on the ground at the time, and finally into Cooper's awaiting arms.
"I think about three or four people hit that ball before I got to it," Cooper said. "Richard has been telling me I need to thank him for that, so I tell Rich, 'Hey, I appreciate it.'"
--Former Panthers president Mike McCormack watched Sunday's game between the Panthers and Cardinals from the press box alongside current general manager Marty Hurney. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson flew McCormack to the game from his nearby home in Palm Desert, Calif., and put him up in a Phoenix area hotel. Several years ago Richardson had a statue of McCormack constructed outside of Bank of America Stadium for his help in the start-up process of the team.
--McCormack, a former offensive lineman in his day, couldn't have been proud of the effort put forth by RT Jordan Gross, who was penalized three times on Sunday for 25 yards. Gross was called for two-false start penalties and a leg whip. Gross also appeared to give up a fourth-quarter sack to Darnell Dockett, although Jeremy Bridges might have been partly responsible for blocking him.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--QB Vinny Testaverde played an efficient game for the Panthers, completing 20 of 33 passes for 206 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. More important, he didn't turn the ball over. The Cardinals, meanwhile, had five turnovers.
--WR Steve Smith got his first 100-yard receiving game in four weeks with 136 yards on 10 receptions. The big play was a 65-yard touchdown reception from Vinny Testaverde that gave the Panthers the lead for good in the fourth quarter.
--RB DeShaun Foster was held to 43 yards on 17 carries Sunday.
--RB DeAngelo Williams was strong for Carolina in the fourth quarter. On one drive, Williams ran for 88 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown to close out the Cardinals.
--MLB Jon Beason has really surpassed expectations since moving to the middle of the defense on Oct. 7. The Panthers are simply playing better, which makes you wonder what they will do when Dan Morgan returns.
--MLB Dan Morgan has now missed the last three games with an Achilles injury. The team hopes to evaluate his progress after the bye week. It's a good thing the Panthers are paying Morgan by the game this year. He makes $1250,000 every time he plays. So far, he's lost $375,000.
--CB Ken Lucas came up with his first pick of the season Sunday.
--FS Deke Cooper had two interceptions Sunday, giving the Panthers five in the last two weeks.
--SS Chris Harris has been a playmaker for the Panthers on defense this season with three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one interception.
REPORT CARD VS. CARDINALS
PASSING OFFENSE: A -- No, it wasn't pretty. But given the circumstances, Vinny Testaverde deserves an "A." For a guy to come off the street on a Wednesday and complete 20 of 33 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown just four days later is pretty impressive. Good thing for old Vinny that he has Steve Smith, who returned to the scene with 10 grabs for 136 yards and a touchdown. Keary Colbert actually made a few big plays for Carolina, finishing with three catches for 29 yards. Of course, he did drop a pass, too.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus -- The Panthers ran for 181 yards on 30 carries, with 113 of those coming in the fourth quarter -- 75 on a big run by DeAngelo Williams. Williams, who finished with a career-high 121 yards, put the game away a few plays later on a 13-yard touchdown run. Basically this was a case of the Panthers hitting a hard rock time and time again until it cracked. DeShaun Foster was held to 43 yards on 17 carries (2.5-yard average), but the Panthers' record improved to a remarkable 23-2 when he carries the ball more than 15 times in game.
PASS DEFENSE: A -- The Panthers knocked out Kurt Warner early. They didn't need to do the same to backup Tim Rattay. Rattay was his own worst enemy, throwing three picks and finishing with a passer rating of 31.8. Carolina's Julius Peppers turned in a magnificent all-around game. Safeties Deke Cooper and Chris Harris continue to develop, and they're a strong reason for the Panthers' improved play on defense the last two weeks. Carolina had five turnovers in all, including a strip of Larry Fitzgerald.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-minus -- The Cardinals ran for 98 yards on 26 carries, led by Edgerrin James, who had 80 yards on 22 carries. The Panthers allowed James to run for a 23-yard touchdown run as Chris Gamble missed a tackle, but other than that, they were pretty solid. Take away that run and the Panthers limited the Cardinals to just 2.6 yards per carry.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- John Kasay was 4-for-5 on field-goal attempts, with his only miss coming from 45 yards. However, he avenged that kick by hitting from the same spot on the field a few minutes later to put the Panthers up 18-10. The normally reliable Jason Baker had a few punts sail off the side of his right foot, one of those resulting in a 25-yarder. However, Baker responded by pinning the Cardinals inside their own 10 twice in the second quarter.
COACHING: A -- John Fox has managed to hold this team together despite injuries to his top three quarterbacks -- Jake Delhomme (injured reserve), David Carr and Brett Basanez (IR). It's kind of amazing to think the Panthers are 4-2 entering the bye week given what they've been through. The game plan for Testaverde was pretty simple -- and it worked. Defensively, Mike Trgovac is letting the dogs hunt, so to speak, and they're beginning to respond. Carolina forced five turnovers. A lot of that has to do with Jon Beason stepping up in the middle of the defense. Now, the big question is who starts at quarterback vs. the Colts.