CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — The Carolina Panthers defense was hoping to build off the momentum it had at the end of last season.
They're off to a good start.
The Panthers defense forced three turnovers, recorded five sacks and scored a touchdown in a 20-9 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. They limited the Jaguars to 75 yards and no points in the second half despite playing without their top defender Luke Kuechly, who left in the second quarter with a concussion and did not return.
"I think it speaks loudly about the leadership on the defense and the fact that we play great team defense," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said Monday. "Not taking anything away from Luke, but there is not one person that is more important than another on this defense."
Now the Panthers will turn their attention to a Houston Texans team that has questions at quarterback.
Houston coach Bill O'Brien benched starter Brian Hoyer after a poor performance Sunday in a 27-20 loss to Kansas City. He was relieved by Ryan Mallett, who led two late TD drives.
O'Brien said Monday he knows who'll start against Carolina, but he's keeping it a secret.
Whether or not Kuechly will be around to lead Carolina's defense remains to be seen, too.
The NFL's highest-paid middle linebacker has entered the NFL's concussion protocol and his status won't be known until later in the week, according to coach Ron Rivera. If Kuechly can't play, strong side linebacker A.J. Klein will fill in at middle linebacker and rookie Shaq Thompson will start at strong side linebacker.
Klein had six tackles, including one for a loss, and did a nice job directing the defense in the second half.
Rivera said that while he was pleased with Klein's effort "the thing that was even better is the other 10 guys didn't feel like they needed to do more than they needed to" with Kuechly out.
In other words, the Panthers have trust in Klein.
Klein is known as a hard worker because of the extra hours he puts into studying game film, McDermott said.
"His success hasn't come by accident," McDermott said.
Still, Klein knows the Panthers are a much more formidable team when Kuechly, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, is in the lineup.
"Hopefully he will be healthy and ready to get back in next week," Klein said.
Kuechly was not made available for comment Monday.
Carolina's defense has finished in the top 10 in the league in each of the last three seasons behind Kuechly. The Panthers finished the season strong, rebounding from a 3-8-1 start to win five of their final six games before falling to Seattle in the NFC divisional playoffs in large part due to Kuechly's big plays.
But other defensive leaders stepped up to take his place Sunday.
Cornerback Josh Norman began his contract year in a big way — he forced and recovered a fumble and intercepted a Blake Bortles' pass and returned it for a touchdown to give Carolina a 17-9 lead in the third quarter.
That helped give a struggling offense a little breathing room.
"Josh took a big load off with the big pick-six, but we can't keep expecting that without any help from the offense," quarterback Cam Newton said after the game.
Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen was called for a pass interference in the end zone nullifying one touchdown, while wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. dropped another pass from Newton that would have resulted in a walk-in touchdown. The normally reliable Graham Gano missed a 53-yard field goal wide left and had a 43-yarder blocked.
Rivera said the Panthers might have been able to get away those missed opportunities on Sunday, but need to execute better against the Texans.
"I'm not satisfied because we made too many mistakes," Rivera said.
NOTES: Panthers rookie offensive tackle Daryl Williams said he'll miss 2-4 weeks with a sprained MCL in his right knee. Williams had the same injury playing at Oklahoma.