CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Mike Rucker had eight sacks at this point last season. The Carolina Panthers were well on their way to the NFC title and Rucker was headed to his first Pro Bowl.
What a difference a year makes.
Rucker has just half a sack this season and the slumping Panthers are 1-6.
The defensive end isn't ready to write off the season, but realizes matching his career-high of 12 sacks is a longshot.
"I feel like I haven't played my best ball, and I feel like I still have that in me," Rucker said. "I'm really concentrating this week because I know I can get back there and get more pressure on the quarterback than I've been getting."
He vowed to have his eye on quarterback Kerry Collins on Sunday when the Panthers play the Oakland Raiders.
"I'm looking myself in the mirror and saying, 'Ruck, you need to get more.' That is what I'm doing and I'm going to keep on doing," he said.
Part of Rucker's decline this season is because teams have blocked him differently this year. It's the same strategy opponents used on end Julius Peppers last year. When Peppers was being double-teamed, Rucker had room to move.
Now that teams have to focus on both ends, Rucker has been neutralized. He won't use that as an excuse for Carolina ranking 30th in the league in sacks per opponents' pass plays.
"You have to fight and keep on fighting," Rucker said. "If you are getting doubled, you have to fight through the double team. A lot of people get doubled, and you just have to beat it."
The loss of All-Pro tackle Kris Jenkins, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury, has undoubtedly hurt Carolina's pass rushing. But coach John Fox thinks the secondary needs to step up and help.
"Pass defense is not all on the defensive line - it's the secondary's job to make the quarterback hesitate," Fox said. "When you make him hesitate, it buys time for your rush. It's an area where you have to be in concert, and we have to continue to improve in that area."
There's also a possibility Rucker has been a bit hesitant this season after a frightening battle with an irregular heartbeat.
He first noticed during a game in Denver, but thought the high altitude was causing it. When his heart started racing again after just a few plays against Philadelphia on Oct. 17, he feared something was seriously wrong.
Rucker left the Eagles game, but team doctors could find no cause for the irregular heartbeat.
They cleared him to play the next week against San Diego, but Rucker said he was a little frightened against the Chargers.
"Playing against San Diego, I was a little tentative thinking it was going to pop back," he said. "But it didn't. So I haven't thought about it anymore."
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