CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The defensive front of the Carolina Panthers is being touted as one of the best in the NFL this season, but it has a ways to go before it can be called the best in team history.
That honor still goes to the 2003 unit of Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner.
One of those could be a thorn in Carolina's side on Sunday as the Panthers (1-2) face the Arizona Cardinals (2-2) at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Buckner, 42, is in his first year as the defensive line coach at Arizona. The former tackle has the Cardinals ranked second in the league against the run, holding opponents to 75 yards per game -- or 18 fewer than Carolina's seventh-ranked defense.
Asked how much Buckner's arrival in Arizona has to do with the team's turnaround from a year ago when it ranked 28th in the league (134 yards a game) against the run, head coach Bruce Arians didn't hesitate.
"I don't think there is any doubt there's a correlation there,'' he said.
As a player, Buckner helped the Pittsburgh Steelers reach the Super Bowl in 1995. Eight years later, he helped Carolina reach the Super Bowl on a line that had 24.5 sacks, 174 tackles and six forced fumbles.
He was always a character in the locker room and a go-to guy for quotes, whether he was talking about himself, his teammates or the other team. One of the first things he said upon arriving at Carolina in 2001 served as inspiration.
"I told the guys, ‘Man, there’s nothing like winning,'"' Buckner said at the time. “It turns the city into a special place when you’re winning and you’re in the playoffs and the eyes of the world are on you.''
Now Buckner is instilling that same confidence in an Arizona team that stands between Carolina getting its second win four games into the season for the first time since 2008.
"Having seen him work training camp in Pittsburgh for four years, and the passion and energy he brought, I said, 'Buc, you really want to do this for a living?' '' Arians said. "He said, 'I'm pretty sure I do coach.'"'
Buckner apparently remains a character as well.
"I have to keep reminding him he's a coach ... straighten his hat out,'' Arians said of Buckner, who always wore his cap turned a bit to the side as a player.
Buckner came to Arizona after four years as an intern with the Steelers. That's where he met Arians, who was the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh from 2007 to 2011.
Buckner took a job in 2012 as the head coach of the Charlotte Speed, a member of the Professional Indoor Football Association, but the team folded before it could take the field.
That was good news for the Cardinals and perhaps bad news for Carolina, which will take the league's No. 3 rushing attack to Arizona. Buckner played a big role in stopping the run as a player, and that hasn't stopped as coach.
"If you can’t stop the ball, you’re going to lose the majority of your games,'' Buckner told the Charlotte Observer in January as he was finalizing his deal with Arizona. “We’re going to dictate how the game will go. When we touch the field, our main goal will be to stop the run. Then we’re going to pin our ears back and go eat.”
That's the Buckner who helped make the 2003 front the best in Carolina history. That's the Buckner who will do everything he can on Sunday to help the Cardinals feast on running back DeAngelo Williams and quarterback Cam Newton.
"When an opportunity came he was one of the first phone calls I made,'' Arians said. "I was fortunate enough to get (78-year-old) Tom Pratt, who coached in Super Bowl I, to come along with him.
"They fit really well together and he's going to be a whale of a football coach.''