Mailbag: Carolina Panthers edition

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Lots of good questions on the first-place Panthers this week. We'll jump around and talk about the importance of Sunday's game with Tampa, ponder why the Panthers aren't commonly viewed as a "surprise'' team and talk about a defense that suddenly has become agressive again.

Nate in Wichita writes: Do you know how many for sure interceptions the panthers have dropped (especially Gamble) in the past 5 weeks?

Pat Yasinskas: Unfortunately, none of the stats services that I have access to track that kind of thing. But we might be able to help you still. I know there are some die-hard fans that chart or just remember every play. Maybe, in the comments section below, they can provide you with an answer.

Yansen in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa writes: do you think the winner of bucs/panthers game will decide the winner of the division?

Pat Yasinskas: I debated for a minute because my first instinct was to say yes. But, realistically, I can't. It's too early in the season to say it that strongly. If the Panthers can win (and the Falcons lose), they can give themselves a nice, early cushion and could end up running away with the division. But let's say the Bucs, Falcons and Saints all win. That would create a tight cluster and making the second round of divisional play the deciding factor.

Ryan in Raleigh, NC writes: Why aren't the Carolina Panthers ever mentioned as a surprise team? I don't recall that many people being on the bandwagon before the season started. Even the Titans are constantly mentioned and they almost made the playoffs last season.

Pat Yasinskas: I agree with your premise. But I'm guessing here and thinking many viewed the Panthers in a unique way -- if Jake Delhomme came back healthy, they'd be good. If his arm wasn't right, they wouldn't. So I think there was at least a suspicion they'd be good. Now, they've proven they are good and they look like they're getting better each week.

Clark in Asheville writes: Pat, Panthers fan here (always loved your coverage when you were in Charlotte, and I'm glad to see you get up in the world). I've been really surprised by Carolina's defense this year, not so much that it has been successful, but the way it has been successful. Through five games, this looks like BY FAR the most aggressive and complex defensive play calling of the John Fox era. It looks like they're running a lot more slants and stunts with the D-line. But the bigger thing is it sure seems like they're blitzing a lot more often and a lot more creatively (as opposed to the last few years, when you could pretty much count on 80% of the blitzes Carlina actually ran to come from some combination of Thomas Davis, Ken Lucas or Richard Marshall - if an offense knew where those guys were, they pretty much knew where the blitz was coming from). My question is why the Panthers are finally moving in a more aggressive defensive direction? Is this something the coaching staff was trying because the heat was on them this year, or is it an attempt to compensate for the expected drop off in line play with the Kris Jenkins trade and Mike Rucker's retirement? Or, is this something that John Fox and Mike Trgovac would have liked to do before, but didn't have the confidence in their personnel to implement before? I'm definitely wondering if this play calling reflects a confidence in John Beason that the coaching staff never seemed to have in Dan Morgan, even when he was healthy.

Pat Yasinskas: I think the answer includes components of all your theories. First, the Panthers in the early Fox years tried to get almost all their pressure from a great front four. They'd use an occasional blitz from Mark Fields, but that was about it. More recently, they tried blitzing with the likes of Davis, Lucas and Marshall and that often was picked up. That's changed this year because there's no doubt the staff was feeling some heat and knew some changes had to be made in the defense. Plus, the arrival of Jon Beason and Chris Harris gave them a couple more guys who can blitz well and don't forget Na'il Diggs, blitzing is one of his strengths. So there's more necessity for it, better personnel to blitz and to help a rebuilding defensive line and it's all working. As far as Morgan, when he was on the field, the Panthers had full confidence. Problem was, he couldn't stay on the field. With Beason, they now have a guy who is what Morgan would have been if he could have stayed healthy.

Chris in Rockwell writes: Why are the Panthers not getting any notice from the national media? Shutting down LT, Peterson, and Larry Johnson should at least garner a nod, no? A dominant defense, an offense that's clicking and balanced, what's not to like?

Pat Yasinskas: I like it all and that's why I voted the Panthers No. 4 in this week's Power Rankings. In the New Orleans airport the other morning, I saw a newspaper with a big story comparing this year's Panthers to the Super Bowl team. I think the bandwagon is just starting to get rolling and you'll get lots more attention with a few more wins.