Panthers wary of Falcons' cut blocks in Week 1

Updated: September 5, 2006, 6:17 PM ET
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina's defense has its hands full against Atlanta simply trying to contain quarterback Michael Vick and its running game.

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Throw in the Falcons' tendency to cut block on offense, and the Panthers know Sunday's season opener could get dangerous.

Defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker both suffered sprained ankles last year against Atlanta when Falcons players legally tackled them below the knees. Although Peppers was able to play the next week, Rucker was sidelined for one game with the injury.

Previous experience with the cut blocks, coupled with watching Atlanta continue the practice through the preseason, has the Panthers on high alert.

"That's them, that's their scheme and that's what works for them," Rucker said Tuesday. "Done right in certain situations, it works and is effective for them. Otherwise people wouldn't do it."

If the Panthers had their way, the practice wouldn't be allowed at all.

The technique is legal under NFL rules as long as the defensive player isn't engaged with another blocker, but the Falcons are one of few teams who have been openly criticized for it. The blocking was refined by Alex Gibbs when he was the offensive line coach with Denver Broncos in the 1990s, and he brought it with him to Atlanta, where he's currently a consultant.

"Alex Gibbs, he is the guy who has created that game, so they are going to take the rules and take them right up to that limit," said Carolina linebacker Chris Draft, who spent five seasons with Atlanta. "By doing that, they are trying to get you to worry about that so much that you forget about the running back.

"When your ankle is hurt because they just chopped you, that could happen. If you worry about the linemen, then you forget about the ball carrier."

Carolina defensive end Al Wallace, who last year compared cut blocking to being able to shoot a competitor's tires out during a NASCAR race, wished the NFL had outlawed the technique during the offseason. But for a rule to be changed, it must go through the league's competition committee.

"Our legs are our livelihood, so to allow someone to take a free swipe at your legs?" Wallace wondered. "I know they have a lot of things in place, like not being able to hit a defenseless quarterback. But you are playing football, and you have your hands on one guy and another guy is chopping you? That's kind of difficult -- having a 300-pound guy diving at your knees."

The Panthers will spend time this week practicing defense mechanisms for the cut blocking technique, but they want it pushed to the back of their minds before kickoff on Sunday. Draft cautioned that worrying too much about it is a partial victory for the Falcons, and could distract the defense from its task of slowing Vick and running back Warrick Dunn.

"We just have to be more conscious of it, but it won't slow me down," Rucker said. "I won't be thinking of it, because we have played them before, we have played Denver before. It's not something that is new, it's just something that was new to a team in the last few years.

"It is what it is and we'll just roll with the dice."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press