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Panthers are witnesses: Preseason defenses bringing more heat

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross remembers facing base defenses almost exclusively in preseason games early in his eight-year NFL career.

Slowly, as defenses have become more complex and blitz-happy, that has changed. And it hasn't worked out so well for several teams, including the Panthers.

Facing constant pressure from all angles, the Panthers have yet to score an offensive touchdown and have allowed 11 sacks entering Saturday's third preseason game against the Tennessee Titans at Bank of America Stadium.

"It seems like more of the defense is installed for the teams when we're playing them," Gross said Friday. "It's almost like a real game as far as the packages that are getting thrown at us. It's definitely tough."

The reason is the Panthers, like most NFL teams, do little, if any, game planning during the preseason because they're still putting in their own plays. While coach John Fox has remained old school -- not wanting to show much on defense in fear it will tip off regular-season opponents -- the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens peppered the Panthers with exotic defensive packages.

The result is an offense, led by new starting quarterback Matt Moore, desperately seeking confidence and success Saturday night when the starters will play into the third quarter.

The Panthers, often struggling to figure out who is responsible for which pass rusher, have managed just three field goals in 28 preseason possessions. They've lost seven consecutive preseason games dating to the 2008 season.

"I think it's easy to say when it doesn't go well that it's just the preseason," Gross said. "But the bottom line is we want to be more productive."

The Panthers aren't the only team looking to protect the quarterback better in this new-age preseason that has often overwhelmed backup linemen and tight ends.

Jay Cutler was yanked from the Chicago Bears' first game after just eight plays because of aggressive blitzing by the San Diego Chargers. A week later, Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said the Chargers "blitzed every time on third down" and "we haven't seen all those blitzes."

St. Louis Rams quarterback A.J. Feeley was sidelined with a right thumb injury when he was hit on a blitz last week against the Cleveland Browns. And on Monday night, Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt acknowledged "we didn't prepare against those kind of blitzes" when the starting unit went three-and-out in the first three series against the Titans.

Now the Panthers likely will face the same Titans defensive schemes Saturday night,

"Arizona admittedly was caught a little off guard from our aggressive approach early in the game," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.

Panthers rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen took a beating during the second half against the Jets last week, when he was sacked twice. He aggravated a chronic toe injury and missed practice Monday. Clausen is expected to finish Saturday's game,

"You've got to go in and watch tape on your own. ... To be honest, that's the hard part about preseason," Clausen said. "Playing good defenses like that, you really don't get to game plan against them."

Many defensive players shrug off talk that they're throwing too much at teams who are mostly looking to evaluate personnel. Blitzing has become a much more prevalent and part of everyday schemes, so they need to practice them in exhibition games.

"We could blitz or we could just say we're going to play base defense and beat you up and be more physical than you at the end of the day," Titans defensive tackle Jovan Haye said. "It's about us being physical guys knowing assignments and executing."

Fox has spent much of the week downplaying Carolina's offensive struggles as it plays without wide receiver Steve Smith (broken arm), whose status for the rest of the preseason is uncertain despite his return to practice.

While Fox has been upset with the pass protection, he has mostly declared Moore and Clausen blameless. And while the more aggressive defensive packages hasn't changed his decision to limit game planning, Fox is hopeful the barrage of looks the Panthers already have faced will help when the games start counting Sept. 12.

"You're going to see just about anything during a given season, and the more looks and the sooner you see things the better," Fox said. "It may not work out statistically the way you want it to, but those things all come into play, helping you as you work through the preseason."

Notes:Panthers backup DE Hilee Taylor was scheduled to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery, Fox said after Friday's practice. Taylor entered camp facing difficult odds to make the 53-man roster. ... Titans rookie DE Derrick Morgan is expected to make his NFL debut against the Panthers. The 16th overall draft pick missed most of training camp with a calf injury.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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