- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. | Carolina’s Maake Kemoeatu spent some of Thursday’s practice on an adjacent field with a medicine ball. Fellow starting defensive tackle Damione Lewis was nearby riding a stationary bike.

The Panthers’ defense is banged-up, giving up a lot of points and in an unusual spot under defensive-minded coach John Fox: trying to keep pace with the offense.

“Our offense has been playing lights-out the last few weeks,” cornerback Ken Lucas said. “We need to get on their level so we can become a complete team.”

After giving up 301 yards rushing in an overtime loss to the New York Giants last week, the Panthers face the NFL’s No. 1 offense Sunday. Carolina (11-4) needs to beat pass-happy New Orleans (8-7) to lock up the No. 2 seed for the NFC playoffs and a first-round bye.

While the secondary will be in the spotlight against Drew Brees, who needs 402 yards passing to break Dan Marino’s single-season record, the defensive line remains a concern.

Kemoeatu was officially listed as limited in practice Thursday, while Lewis did not participate. Kemoeatu missed the Giants game with a sprained right ankle, and Lewis left in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury.

If both were to miss Sunday’s game, the Panthers would have few options. Darwin Walker likely would start at one tackle spot. The other would be filled by rookie Nick Hayden, signed off Carolina’s practice squad Saturday, or J’Vonne Parker, signed off Atlanta’s practice squad Tuesday.

“You can’t redo everything you’ve done all season,” Fox said about starting an inexperienced player. “You can’t reinvent the wheel in a week. It doesn’t necessarily change so much what you do, as much as training guys to do what you do.”

That used to be playing stout defense. Fox, a former Giants defensive coordinator, has always emphasized that side of the ball. Carolina started the season strong, holding Atlanta without a touchdown, shutting out Kansas City and limiting the Saints to a season-low seven points in a four-week span.

But since holding Oakland to two field goals Nov. 9, the Panthers have struggled. They have allowed at least 22 points in five of the past six games. Carolina’s surging offense bailed out the defense to get wins in three of those games.

The offense, which struggled the previous two seasons, has scored at least 28 points six straight weeks. Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have combined to give the Panthers the NFL’s fourth-best running game. Steve Smith is fourth in the league with 1,287 yards receiving.

“Watching these guys is inspiring to a defense,” linebacker Na’il Diggs said. “It shows the offense has showed up and we’ve got to step our game up now. It kind of challenges you. You don’t want to be lagging behind.”

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