Young stars play big role for Carolina D

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You're going to hear a lot about the Carolina Panthers' second-ranked defense after Sunday's 10-9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

You're going to hear how the front seven is among the league's best, how they stop the run and pressure the quarterback without using a lot of fancy schemes or blitzes.

You're going to hear how statistically they rank in the top five -- and in many cases top two -- in most categories and they're a major reason for the team's five-game winning streak.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who will face this unit Monday night at Bank of America Stadium, is so impressed that he said Tuesday on a weekly radio show in the Boston area "we'll see what we're made of."

But what may be most impressive is the Panthers (6-3) are so effective with three to five rookies on the field at critical times. Two of them, in a few cases three, are undrafted.

I asked defensive coordinator Sean McDermott what he would have said had I presented him that scenario during training camp.

"I've already lost my hair," said McDermott, whose scalp is as smooth as a bowling ball.

Seriously, McDermott added, "That typifies what we're all about. We play great team defense and there's not one person that is more important than the other. They take a tremendous amount of pride that they're playing for each other."

In case you aren't familiar with these young stars, here's a quick look:

  • Star Lotulelei, DT, 1st round: The 16th overall pick out of Utah is playing like the top pick many thought he might be until an echocardiogram administered at the NFL scouting combine indicated the left ventricle to his heart was operating at only 44 percent. The inside push he's getting prevents teams from double-teaming ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson as much as they once were and has blown up a lot of run plays. He has 25 tackles, a sack and seven quarterback pressures. A definite candidate for defensive rookie of the year.

  • Kawann Short, DT, 2nd round: He doesn't get as much publicity as Lotulelei because he doesn't start. But the former Purdue Boilermaker is doing many of the same things Lotulelei does as his 17 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 11 quarterback pressures and fumble recovery will attest.

  • Melvin White, CB, undrafted: Who is Melvin White? That's been one of the most asked questions this season. The former Louisiana-Lafayette player was inactive during a 24-23 loss to Buffalo in Week 2 but got his chance the following week against the New York Giants thanks to a rash of injuries in the secondary. He responded with an interception and a forced fumble, and moved into the starting lineup three games ago after Josh Thomas was beaten deep on two plays against the Rams. The coaches love that he makes plays.

  • Robert Lester, SS, undrafted: The former Alabama standout began the season on the practice squad but was moved up after starter Charles Godfrey was lost for the season in Week 2. He started that week against the New York Giants and had an interception in his first two games. He suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him against Minnesota, and replacement Quintin Mikell played so well that the two split the position now.

  • A.J. Klein, OLB, fifth round: When starter Chase Blackburn left with a foot injury against San Francisco this former Iowa State player stepped in to collect five tackles (second on the team), a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry. He will start against New England if Blackburn doesn't return.

  • Wes Horton, OLB, undrafted: When Blackburn went out against Tampa Bay this former Southern Cal standout stepped in for 19 plays and the defense didn't miss a beat.

"It's a group of young guys that play fast," coach Ron Rivera said. "The things we do on the defensive side, in terms of keeping it familiar, has helped those guys."

And you're likely to hear about them for years to come.