Banged-up Panthers defense struggles to regain earlier form

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Maake Kemoeatu spent some of Thursday's practice with a medicine ball on an adjacent field. Fellow starting defensive tackle Damione Lewis was nearby riding a stationary bike.

The Carolina Panthers' defense is banged up, giving up a lot of points and in an unusual spot under defensive-minded coach John Fox: trying to keep pace with the offense.

"Our offense has been playing lights out the last few weeks," cornerback Ken Lucas said. "We need to get on their level so we can become a complete team."

After giving up 301 rushing yards in an overtime loss to the New York Giants last week, the Panthers face the NFL's top-ranked offense this Sunday. Carolina (11-4) needs to beat the pass-happy New Orleans Saints (8-7) to lock up the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round bye.

While the Panthers' secondary will be in the spotlight against Saints QB Drew Brees, who needs 402 passing yards to break Hall of Fame Dan Marino's single-season record, their defensive line remains a concern.

Kemoeatu was officially listed as limited in practice Thursday, while Lewis didn't participate. Kemoeatu missed the Giants game with a sprained right ankle, and Lewis left in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury.

If both were to miss Sunday's game, the Panthers would have few options. Darwin Walker likely would start at one tackle spot. The other would be filled by rookie Nick Hayden, signed off Carolina's practice squad Saturday, or J'Vonne Parker, signed off the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad Tuesday.

"You can't redo everything you've done all season," Fox said when asked about the prospect of starting an inexperienced player. "You can't reinvent the wheel in a week. It doesn't necessarily change so much what you do, as much as training guys to do what you do."

That used to be playing stout defense. Fox, a former Giants defensive coordinator, has always emphasized that side of the ball. Carolina started the season strong, holding the Falcons without a touchdown, shutting out the Kansas City Chiefs and limiting the Saints to a season-low seven points in a four-week span.

But since holding the Oakland Raiders to two field goals on Nov. 9, the Panthers have struggled, allowing at least 22 points in five of their six games. Carolina's surging offense bailed out the defense to get wins in three of those games.

The offense, which struggled the previous two seasons, has scored at least 28 points in six straight weeks. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have combined to give the Panthers the NFL's fourth-best running game, and Steve Smith is fourth in the league with 1,287 receiving yards.

"Watching these guys is inspiring to a defense," linebacker Na'il Diggs said. "It shows the offense has showed up, and we've got to step our game up now. It kind of challenges you. You don't want to be lagging behind."

They are lagging in many areas. The Panthers have had trouble tackling and stopping teams on third down. Lucas was called for a key pass-interference penalty on the Giants' tying touchdown drive Sunday, and the Panthers have fallen to 22nd in the league in defending the run.

"We're just trying to figure out ways to get back to playing that good defense that we were playing early in the season," Lucas said. "We're doing everything in our power to try to get that point before the playoffs start because it's one and out if we continue to play like we have been playing."

Lucas is confident the Panthers can rebound on defense, despite the injuries to the line. They'll need to quickly, with Brees and the Saints standing in the way of a bye week and a guaranteed home playoff game.

"We just got to go back to doing the things the technical things that we did at the beginning of the season that you sometimes take for granted," Lucas said. "We have so many guys who feel like they're playmakers out there trying to do too much. If we just do our jobs, then that should be good enough."

Notes: WR Muhsin Muhammad practiced Thursday after sitting out one day earlier with a sore foot. ... Starting TE Jeff King (knee) was limited in practice, and TE Dante Rosario (illness) didn't participate.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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