Inside-out approach could make D even better

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Their game is football, but if the Carolina Panthers are as good in 2006 as a lot of the prognosticators have suggested, one reason will be that in assembling the defense, general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox heeded an adage with baseball roots.

You've got to be strong up the middle.

"And, believe me, we are," veteran safety Mike Minter said. "It all starts in this league with stopping the run. And stopping the run starts not just up front, but with your tackles, and then your middle linebacker, then the safeties. If you look at the great run-stopping defenses, they're built from the inside out. There's like a sturdiness of construction, you know, and I think we've got it."

Indeed, from front to back, they do. And that's why a Carolina outfit that statistically ranked No. 3 in the NFL in 2005 and has two top-10 finishes in the critical run defense category during Fox's four years as head coach might be even more dominant this time around. Make no mistake, the Panthers' defense has terrific edge performers, too, such as ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker, and feisty cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas, and the unit possesses plenty of quickness.

"If everyone stays healthy, I just don't see teams being able run the ball at us. We're an awfully strong team inside. We could make it a long day for a lot of running [attacks]."
MLB Dan Morgan

But its strength principally lies with, well, its strength.

In Minter, tackles Kris Jenkins and Maake Kemoeatu and middle linebacker Dan Morgan, Carolina pretty much has four solid cinder blocks. Jenkins, assuming he is healthy after two injury-ravaged seasons, and Kemoeatu, signed from the Baltimore Ravens as an unrestricted free agent, are more like industrial pilings, sunk dozens of feet into the earth to support all of the floors being added to the skyscraper.

Cornerstones for the Panthers, the two ponderous tackles might be more like millstones for any opposing offensive linemen trying to budge them.

One of the league's premier interior defenders before a shoulder injury in 2004 and a torn knee ligament last season transformed him from a run stopper to an idle doorstop, Jenkins is listed at 340 pounds, but is almost certainly more than that. Kemoeatu was 375 pounds when he reported to work this spring, but has melted all the way down to a semi-svelte 345. And the former Ravens standout, who began emerging two years ago as an inside force, is simply big all over. Not fat big, like some defensive tackles -- just big. In the early days of camp, the Carolina offensive linemen haven't been able to block Kemoeatu, who cost Hurney a lot of money, but seems well worth the investment. Good luck to the guards and centers on the Carolina schedule.

"If Kris is healthy, and those two guys are lined up inside together, I don't know if teams can even try to run the ball," said Lucas. "It might even help in the passing game because, with those two tackles pushing everything inside and forcing double teams, it means 'Pep' and 'Ruck' have more room to work on the pass rush. And if they're bringing pressure, that helps the guys in the secondary. But man, you stand back there, like we do, and look inside at our tackles, and it's like they blot out everything, they're so big. They just eat up space and eat up bodies, you know?"

Which is good news for Morgan, perhaps the best size-speed middle linebacker in the NFL, but a player who probably hasn't received as much publicity as he should, mostly because of his injury history. Morgan has gotten a ton of attention in camp because he arrived with a portable hyperbaric chamber, a device that simulates the pressure of negative sea level, which is said to promote blood flow to injuries, and thus, enhance healing.

Morgan has taken some good-natured ribbing because the most famous other(-wordly) celebrity to embrace the therapeutic qualities of the hyperbaric chamber was singer Michael Jackson, who is said to have often slept in one. Morgan, who has missed an average of five games per season during his five-year career and prefers to be the king of popping ball carriers, not the King of Pop, swears by the thing. And he knows that if it helps keep him on the field, he's going to make a lot of tackles, because Jenkins and Kemoeatu are going to keep blockers off his body.

"They occupy people and I get to run to the ball," Morgan said. "Not bad, huh?"

The team's first-round draft choice in 2001, who got an early exposure to the game because his father served as the driver for Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino years ago, Morgan represents a mix of the old and new at the middle linebacker position. At 245 pounds, he is blessed with the kind of size that once defined a position where players were basically required to play in a box whose parameters stretched only from one tackle box to the other.

But Morgan, who registered an amazing 25 tackles in the Panthers' loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII, also has incredible speed and great diagnostic skills. Without blinking, he acknowledged there are few Mike linebackers in the NFL with his rare skill set. And his teammates agree.

"He can go from sideline to sideline, dozens of times a game, and you never see the guy tired," Minter said. "With Dan, it's like, choose your poison. He can step up [into a gap] and bury you if you run at him. And if you run away from him, he'll chase you down. Hopefully, if we can live up to all the expectations this year, people will realize how good he really is."

The same can be said for Minter, who serves not only as an elder but also as the conscience for the defense, it seems. After losing partner Marlon McCree in free agency this spring, it remains to be seen how Minter melds with Shaun Williams, the former New York Giants first rounder who has never quite played up to his draft status in terms of making game-altering plays.

It never seems to matter to Minter, though, who is playing alongside him, or whether the coaches ask him to play the free safety or strong safety spot. Regardless of the situation, Minter, 32, and entering his 10th season, is just always there, a fixture for the Panthers.

The former Nebraska star, a second-round choice in 1997, holds the franchise records for tackles (861), forced fumbles (16), fumble recoveries (nine), interception returns for touchdowns (four) and return yards on interceptions (418). Yet somehow Minter, a go-to guy when it comes to gaining a perspective and pulse on the Panthers, has never been selected for a Pro Bowl game.

That slight could be easily assuaged this year, Minter allowed, smiling, with a Super Bowl berth. And given the strength of the Carolina defense up the middle, that's definitely a possibility.

"If everyone stays healthy, I just don't see teams being able run the ball at us," Morgan said. "We're an awfully strong team inside. We could make it a long day for a lot of running [attacks]."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.