INSIDE SLANT

Defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker sat at their lockers stewing as they looked at the stat sheets given to them by the team's public relations department.

The frustration was evident in their faces.

Defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker sat at their lockers stewing as they looked at the stat sheets given to them by the team's public relations department.

You'd never have known the Panthers had just defeated the New Orleans Saints 19-13 to go 4-0 on the season for the first time in franchise history.

Both were upset over what they viewed as a terrible outing by the Panthers defense. The Panthers allowed running back Deuce McAllister to rack up 183 all-purpose yards from scrimmage and failed to record a sack for the first time in nine games dating back to last season.

Panthers coach John Fox views that as a positive.

"The pride they build in their unit, personally I think that's a good thing," Fox said. "They feel like they are capable of better. Winning a game in this league is hard to do anytime, but I kind of like that attitude personally. They know there is still room to improve.

"You strive for perfection and sometimes that is hard to obtain. As long as you keep guys' minds on task. There are some areas we have to improve on."

Although the Panthers are unbeaten, their defensive statistics aren't quite where they were last season. Carolina, which ranked second in the league in overall defense in 2002, currently ranks 22nd and has only four takeaways in four games.

They're on pace for 44 sacks this season, eight below last year's total.

The Panthers have also allowed a running back to crest 100 yards rushing in each of the last two weeks after allowing just one back to run for 100 yards last season. But the rushing numbers aren't dramatically off from last year. The Panthers are giving up 108.5 yards per game on the ground, five more than last season.

"I don't know that (opposing teams) have been overly successful running the ball on us," Fox said. "They haven't been as successful as we have and I think that is the key in any game."

Carolina's defense is doing well in the one statistic Fox really pays attention to - points allowed.

The Panthers have surrendered 48 points this season, an average of 12 per game, which ranks second in the NFC behind only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And that is what Fox would like his players to focus on the most.

"You are dealing with fragile minds and it is a very competitive business," Fox said. "I think so far our team has attacked each new challenge each week and we have played well enough to win."


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