Panthers' defense finally stepping up

The good news for the Carolina Panthers is they had seven sacks last week against the St. Louis Rams. Want to hear the better news? Defensive end Julius Peppers didn't have any of those. The fact that Peppers was held without a sack means that others are finally starting to step up and that this Carolina defense is beginning to play as a team.

Since the bye week, when the Panthers defense had a players only meeting and agreed to begin going to dinner together on Thursday nights, the Panthers have limited their past two opponents to a combined 10 points, forced six turnovers and registered 10 sacks.

In so doing, the Panthers have climbed into contention for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs entering this Sunday's game against the downtrodden Washington Redskins.

That's bad news for the rest of the league. Carolina's defense typically plays better in the second half of the season and that trend appears to be repeating itself again.

The players truly believe the Thursday night dinners have helped.

"I think it's creating a closeness, creating a chemistry that we were missing," said safety Mike Minter. "We kind of took it for granted that it was going to be there. With so many new guys coming in here, they didn't understand what it meant to play on this Carolina Panther defense. Now we're starting to feel that togetherness with each other."

Last week Carolina got three sacks from their linebackers and defensive end Mike Rucker came up with a big game with two sacks and a safety.

Coming into last week's game, Rucker had 1.5 sacks on the season and had quietly surrendered his all-time franchise sack record to Julius Peppers. But after recording two sacks on St. Louis' Marc Bulger, one of those good for a safety and securing Carolina's 15-0 shutout, Rucker moved back to within a half-sack of Peppers with 51 for his career.

It was a flashback to the past, the days when Rucker was putting up Peppers-like numbers. From 2001 to 2003, Rucker averaged better than 10 sacks per season. But since the Super Bowl, he had only 12.5 sacks for the Panthers in a span of 39 games, causing some to wonder if he was on the downside of his career.

But those closest to him insist that isn't remotely true, saying Rucker is still playing at an extremely high level.

"I think he's playing well and you won't find a guy on the field who is fighting and battling harder than Ruck," said defensive end Al Wallace. "And you look at his assignment and he's getting things done and he's hitting the quarterback and getting close sometimes but it just hasn't come.

"I know Mike and I've been with him for five years and when he gets that first sack it's like tipping a domino over with him. I expect him to get on a roll and starting racking up the numbers. But you have to remember that while the sack numbers look pretty, when you look for is a team guy and an unselfish guy who is going to go out there and play 65 of 70 plays and give you everything he has. And that's what you get with Mike Rucker."

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