CHARLOTTE, N.C. - When the Carolina Panthers lost Kris Jenkins for the season, it was assumed their defense would suffer tremendously without the game-changing tackle.
Instead, the Panthers have turned it up the past few weeks and are finally playing like one the best defensive units in the NFL.
"One person is not going to make up a team," said defensive end Mike Rucker, who was chosen NFC defensive player of the week Wednesday. "I know what I am capable of doing, I know what the D-line is capable of doing, and I know right now we are putting together some good ballgames."
Carolina's defense has definitely hit its stride during this five-game winning streak. Forget about trying to run against the Panthers; they are totally shutting down opponents.
The Panthers (6-2) head into Sunday's game against the New York Jets ranked first in run defense, allowing just 74 yards per game. They've also only given up five touchdowns rushing on the year.
Since Miami's Ronnie Brown broke a long run to push his total to 144 yards in a Sept. 25 win over Carolina, the Panthers haven't allowed another 100-yard game.
"We played some good ball, and we had some good chances to win in the two losses," Rucker said. "But the past few weeks, we've really turned it up and it's hot right now."
The defense had one of its best overall games in last week's 34-14 victory over Tampa Bay. Carolina allowed just 44 yards rushing, sacked Chris Simms six times, forced four turnovers and Chris Gamble returned an interception for a touchdown.
After getting just five sacks in the season's first five games, the Panthers now have 16 in their past three. And on Wednesday, an official scoring change was made to the game stats that credited Julius Peppers with a third sack.
Rucker also had a big game, forcing a fumble, recovering another and getting two sacks.
"It was good just to see us go out there and put together a good game," said defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "You can see we're finally starting to jell. Guys are making less mistakes. Guys are flying to the ball and making plays. It was all good."
Many credit Carolina's sudden defensive surge to the quick development of tackle Jordan Carstens. Pushed into the starting lineup after Jenkins tore knee ligaments in the opener, Carstens has done an admirable job of filling in for a player considered one of the best in the NFL at his position.
The second-year player - who went undrafted as a rookie - has two sacks, three quarterback pressures and a deflected pass. Given the daunting task of replacing Jenkins, Carstens said it was initially overwhelming.
"I think at first it was, just because of the caliber of player he is and the expectations of this D-line," he said. "But after you get past all that, you just have to go out, do your job and hopefully get it done for the team."
But Carstens used everything he learned in training camp and his experiences during the preseason to adapt. So when he was sent out as a starter, he said he was prepared.
"I felt like from the first game I was ready to step in and do my job," he said. "I just try to do my assignment out there, try to make as few mistakes as I can, and go out there and do what the defense says."
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