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Snapshot of Panthers' defense against Patriots a good sign

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Six series. Two interceptions. Four three-and-outs. Forty-six yards.

That’s what the first-team defense of the Carolina Panthers did to the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady on Friday night until the final drive of the first half.

That’s the kind of defense the Panthers have grown accustomed to the past three seasons when that unit ranked among the top 10 in the NFL.

"People flying around, doing stuff we’re supposed to do," cornerback Josh Norman said. "D-line hunting and eating. The secondary breaking on the ball. Linebackers playing downhill, hitting everything that moves. Side to side, best in the league.

"That’s what we brought out today. We’ve got to continue to take that into the season."

With the offense continuing to find its identity without star receiver Kelvin Benjamin, expectations for the defense will grow.

But what was encouraging about the above snapshot is that the Panthers did this with three-quarters of their starting defensive front on the sideline nursing injuries.

Defensive end Charles Johnson (calf) and tackles Star Lotulelei (foot) and Kawann Short (back) have not played in the first three preseason games. Johnson and Short are expected to return for the final tune-up on Thursday in Pittsburgh.

Coach Ron Rivera said Lotulelei is on track to be ready for the Sept. 13 opener at Jacksonville.

"Taking that into consideration, that’s going to add to what we do have now," Norman said. "Today, we put up a very good performance against the defending [Super Bowl] champions."

Brady engineered an 80-yard touchdown on New England’s final drive of the half. He ended it with a perfectly thrown pass to Scott Chandler down the left sideline.

It had to be perfect because outside linebacker Thomas Davis was step for step with the tight end.

"We did the things I wanted to see us do," Rivera said. "The two-minute drive, there were a couple of things that they did. Tom Brady is who he is because he is a great football player."

But overall, Rivera believes the defense is right where it should be heading into the season. In fact, he thought there should have been more interceptions by a secondary that is far more solid than it was at this point a year ago.

"At least four, maybe five," Rivera said. "They put themselves in position to make plays, and that’s always a good thing."