CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -It's inevitable at the start of nearly every game: the TV announcers talk about how good the Carolina Panthers' defensive line is. National pundits follow suit.
But, the statistics show, that's so 2003.
Through two games this year, the Panthers have one sack - by backup defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead.
Moorehead, who comes in on obvious passing downs, has more tackles (eight) than starters Mike Rucker (seven), Maake Kemoeatu (five) and Kris Jenkins (four).
The star of the line, Julius Peppers, has been credited with 10 tackles by the coaching staff after film review, but has no sacks.
``It's way too early. It's like evaluating through the first half of the first quarter,'' coach John Fox said Wednesday. ``We'll wait until we get a little bit more into it before we start giving out evaluations.''
But in recent years the Panthers haven't matched up to the reputation they justly earned in 2002 and 2003 as having a dominant line.
Starters Peppers, Rucker, Jenkins and Brentson Buckner combined for 34 sacks in 2002, Fox's first year. A year later, Rucker, Peppers, Jenkins and Al Wallace combined for 29 as Carolina reached the Super Bowl.
Since then, the numbers have declined and the rushing defense has suffered.
Jenkins got hurt in 2004, and the Panthers allowed 119 yards rushing per game. Peppers had 10 1/2 sacks in 2005, but the Panthers remained concerned with their run defense.
To shore that up, the Panthers lured Kemoeatu away from Baltimore with a five-year, $23 million contract. The Panthers then gave up seven 100-yard rushing games in their first 14 games last season.
Peppers was tied for fifth in the NFL with 13 1/2 sacks in 2006, but went five straight games without one in a 1-4 stretch that cost them a playoff berth.
Peppers deservedly made the Pro Bowl, but so did Jenkins, something he was surprised by and showed reputation plays a big part in the selections.
Carolina's line was nearly silent in Sunday's loss to Houston, where former Texan - and current Panthers' backup David Carr - was sacked 249 times in five years.
Using bootlegs and play-action fakes, Matt Schaub kept the Panthers at bay and wasn't sacked. Houston rushed for 119 yards in its 34-21 win.
``Teams are going to try to find ways to aggravate you,'' Rucker said.
Using sacks as a barometer of the line's success can be deceiving. And the Panthers may be using the defensive line to help shore up a shaky secondary. Peppers has dropped into coverage several times through the first two games.
``I feel like I can be effective in both situations with my hand down rushing and standing up,'' Peppers said. ``Sometimes you have to play to the offense.''
It's why Peppers believes that even without a sack, he's played well.
``I feel like I've done what I'm supposed to do,'' Peppers said. ``A few mistakes here and there, but other than that I'm doing good.''
The line is costing the Panthers big money - and it could be a lot more if Peppers gets a contract extension that could rival Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney's six-year, $72 million contract signed in the offseason.
Besides Kemoeatu's deal, Jenkins is owed about $3 million per season through 2009. Rucker, coming off knee surgery, took a pay cut in the offseason.
Perhaps knowing he's about to write a big check, owner Jerry Richardson has urged Peppers to become the leader of the defense after safety Mike Minter's retirement in training camp. Peppers has shrugged off the comments, saying he didn't interpret them as a challenge to become more vocal.
Peppers and the Panthers could get well against the 0-2 Falcons on Sunday. Atlanta's Joey Harrington has been sacked 13 times in two games.
``They look good to me,'' Falcons coach Bobby Petrino said of the Panthers' line. ``They are big and physical and can run. Obviously the size of Peppers and Rucker concern us on the edge. I think Kris Jenkins is playing well.''
But well enough to earn the hype they get?
``It's a 16-week regular season. It's a long season,'' Rucker said. ``You can't base everything off two games.''
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