Panthers' defensive tackles to be tested in exhibition opener
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By Charles Chandler
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers' most glaring weakness gets confronted by the sternest of preseason tests Monday night at Giants Stadium.
The Panthers' opponent, the New York Giants, ledthe NFL in rushing offense last season, providing a significant barometer for a Carolina run defense still reeling from the loss of starting tackle Maake Kemoeatu for the season because of a ruptured Achilles tendon.
For now, the Panthers have scarce little experienced depth at defensive tackle behind veteran starter Damione Lewis, though team officials are expected to add a veteran or two before the start of the regular season via trade, waiver claim or free agency signing.
At center stage Monday night are the Panthers' young defensive tackles backing up starters Lewis and Nick Hayden. It's a huge opportunity for players like third-round pick Corvey Irvin, and undrafted rookies Marlon Favorite and Lonnie Harvey.
"I'm excited, basically ecstatic about the whole situation," said Favorite.
The Giants rumbled for 301 yards late last season against a Carolina defense playing without an injured Kemoeatu for the entire game and minus Lewis for the latter stages.
Of course, there will be no game-planning Monday night, but the task is nonetheless daunting for the Panthers' tackles.
"We're going up against probably the best running offensive line in the league," said Carolina Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jon Beason.
Panthers' coaches and team officials will be watching to see how the youngsters fare Monday night and in the other three exhibitions. So far, they've had mixed results in training camp practices.
"There are a lot of inconsistencies right now, and that's obviously going to happen when you lose a guy like (Kemoeatu) and the next guy's got to step in, but we'll make it happen," said new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks.
Defensive line coach Brian Baker has said since the injury occurred that the Panthers were fortunate it happened at the start of training camp and not closer to the Sept. 13 regular-season opener againstPhiladelphia.
"We've been able to adjust some things to get the other tackles playing in a manner that gives them a chance to be successful," said Baker. "They have to work through a system that's different from when Kemo was out there.
"We'll be doing it a different way, but hopefully just as effective."
Kemoeatu was to play as a single-gap nose tackle on a full-time basis, but now those duties are being split by the right and left tackles depending upon the alignment of the opposing offense.
"None of these guys out here can replace Maake," said Lewis. "There are only a handful of (nose tackles) in the league who can play just as good or as well as Maake did. He's one of the best in the business.
"So we're not going to have that. That's gone. We just have to hustle and do the small things right to overcome what we're missing with him. He is a true run-stuffer. We don't have another true run-stuffer_nowhere on the roster do we have one."
Lewis is quicker than Kemoeatu, but isn't as capable of tying up offensive linemen so Beason and other linebackers can make tackles
"What I'm not going to do is be able to sit in there and hold up stuff like Kemo, but what I can do is penetrate," said Lewis. "My whole object is to get my hands on the center and get him knocked back before he gets off into me.
"My game down there is quickness, not power. I'm not a power guy."
With the starters expected to play only about a quarter Monday night, the young defensive tackles should get plenty of playing time. Lewis said the game will provide an early glimpse of their capabilities, but won't be conclusive.
"These guys are learning how to play," said Lewis. "You can't just say,. 'This is him. This is what he is.' Because you know he's going to be a (heck) of a lot better three months from now than he's going to be rightnow. What we're looking for is progression, for these guys to continue to get better."
Baker is keeping expectations realistic.
"Our goal is just to get all those guys to play to the best of their ability," he said. "We're not trying to get those guys to play at an all-pro level because, to be honest with you, some of them don't have that kind of talent."
Monday night's game also provides a first peak at the new defense under Meeks, although he'll keep things ultra-basic because the Panthers play the Giants in the regular season.
Meeks' philosophy is built heavily around all-out pursuit of the ball, which Panthers' defenders have said is pushing them to the limit.
"We're going to be a quick, fast-to-the-ball, reaction defense (that plays with) energy, effort, hustle," said Meeks. "We want to create that turnover mentality."
Lewis and starting defensive end Tyler Brayton have said the Panthers will need to rotate defensive linemen regularly in order to keep up the pace Meeks wants.
Meeks said substitutions will be important to keep players fresh, but that the top defensive players also are simply going to have to get used to playing at_and sustaining_a faster pace.
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