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Ex-Colt Meeks inherits Panthers defense in need of improvement

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- How much better the Carolina Panthers will be on defense this season depends on several factors, including resolving the Julius Peppers stalemate.

But after two days of minicamp practices, it's clear that new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks does things differently.

It's safe to say the burly Mike Trgovac never ran alongside his players in drills. There weren't too many instances of Trgovac dishing out high-fives in practice, either.

But Meeks, a small and fit former defensive back, is all about energy.

"Well, that's what it's all about, isn't it?" Meeks said Saturday. "You identify yourself with how you practice and how you play. Instead of talking about it, you've got to try to do it. We try to have an up-tempo kind of thing. I think it's going to be good for the guys."

Meeks, 54, left the Indianapolis Colts in January and took over the Panthers' defense after Trgovac turned down a contract extension. Meeks inherits a unit that hemorrhaged points late last season and faces uncertainty with its best player. Peppers, a four-time Pro Bowl defensive end, wants to play elsewhere and has been absent from the weekend workouts.

"Hopefully, he's here pretty soon," Meeks said. "I think he's going to be a big part in what we do."

Meeks spoke confidently of how Peppers' unique pass-rushing talents will fit into a system that will resemble the "Tampa Two" defense he ran with the Colts, where most of the quarterback pressure comes from the defensive line.

Peppers, who hasn't signed his one-year, franchise-tag tender worth $16.7 million, had 14.5 sacks last season. The other three starters on the line combined for eight.

"Obviously, we have a special guy with special talent in Peppers," Meeks said. "Also, Tyler Brayton is a guy that can get pressure. We went into the draft looking at some guys that can give us obvious pressure. We think Everette Brown can be one of those guys."

The Panthers took Brown, the former Florida State star who led the Atlantic Coast Conference with 13.5 sacks last season, with an extra second-round pick obtained by trading next year's first-rounder to the San Francisco 49ers. It was a bold move for a player who is just 6-foot-2 and 256 pounds, undersized for an NFL defensive end. But Meeks had success with the smaller, lighter Dwight Freeney (6-1, 268) and Robert Mathis (6-2, 245) in Indianapolis.

"I think the biggest thing is we felt that his skill set will fit into what we're trying to do" Meeks said. "We need to try to create some more pressure in passing situations. We felt having another guy opposite Peppers could get some production and some pressure."

Meeks stressed that his system will adapt to the personnel. He didn't have a mammoth defensive tackle in Indianapolis like he does in Carolina with 6-5, 345-pound Maake Kemoeatu. Fellow tackle Damione Lewis (6-2, 301) also is more of a run-stuffer, but he played under Meeks as a rookie with the St. Louis Rams in 2001.

Meeks identified middle linebacker Jon Beason and cornerback Chris Gamble as back-seven playmakers for whom he will adjust his scheme.

"Obviously, we've had some success with this system in Indianapolis," Meeks said. "Working under Tony Dungy, obviously, I picked up some things there that are a big influence in what I'm doing. But we want to make sure we're doing the things that can magnify and produce some good results based on the skill set that we have."

Minicamp schedules

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Meeks has been considered head-coach material, and he has worked under some big names, including Dan Reeves and Jimmy Johnson. Meeks' 2007 Colts led the NFL in scoring defense, but now he inherits a Panthers unit that allowed an average of 29.5 points over the final seven games last season.

But Meeks is confident that Carolina's defense is better than those numbers. Having Peppers back in the fold is key, but until then, Meeks is working with what he has -- and making an early impression that's hard to ignore.

"Meeks is a fiery guy, out there running around," Beason said. "You can see he's in good shape so he can keep up with us."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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