NFL: Panthers, Redskins to look at starters
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó The Carolina Panthers looked great on both sides of the ball in their preseason opener, then struggled a week later while playing in a soggy mess.
The Washington Redskins are still figuring out how things work under new coach Jim Zorn, and have seen little from several key contributors.
Tonight’s preseason game, when the starters should play into the third quarter, provides the first significant test for both teams.
“The first week I thought we ran the ball well the very little time we were in there. Last week we started out slow, that was disappointing,” said Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, who is 9 of 15 for 54 yards and an interception in two games since returning from elbow surgery.
“I think we’ve made tons of strides on the practice field and we’re a lot further along than last year. But we’ll get a bigger test this week.”
After the Panthers (1-1) forced two turnovers and led 14-0 four minutes into the game against Indianapolis, they took a step back in Philadelphia last week. Playing in a driving rainstorm and forced to sit through an hour lightning delay, the first-team offense had two three-and-outs, an interception and one field-goal drive.
Delhomme, who got hit for the first time last week since his ligament-replacement surgery, now will try to stay away from defensive end Jason Taylor, set to see his first extended time with Washington since leaving Miami.
“We are going to see our starting group try to improve their cohesiveness,” Zorn said. “I don’t want to see mental errors, but we want to see execution and finish.”
The Redskins (3-0) have gotten decent play from Jason Campbell (16 of 25, a 95.4 passer rating) as he learns how quickly he needs to release the ball in Zorn’s West Coast offense. Running back Clinton Portis, who was given last week off, is expected to get several carries against the Panthers as they fine tune the new offense that could include rookie receiver Malcolm Kelly, who’s been out with a hamstring injury.
“Once you look at that Carolina field and see that they blitz every other play and that they really game-plan for the teams that they play, then you can’t help but realize the season is right around the corner,” Portis said.
Both teams have game-planned, unusual for the preseason. Panthers coach John Fox said he had players watch Washington film because of the eight-day layoff between games. And Carolina has been blitzing linebackers and defensive backs more in the preseason than in the past.
But the Panthers would like to depend on defensive end Julius Peppers for most of the pressure. After a career-worst 21/2 sacks in 2007, Peppers had a sack, a forced fumble and a hurry that led to an interception on Aug. 9 against Indianapolis. Peppers had three tackles five days later against Philadelphia.
For Campbell to continue his progress, he’ll need help from his offensive line to stop Peppers in the first half. Zorn has expressed concern with Campbell hesitating on some throws.
“Jason is getting more comfortable throwing the ball. He is taking that next step. That is what we need out of him,” said center Casey Rabach. “Wide receiver-wise, we are talented as all get out. If we give Jason the time to throw and Jason plays the game that we know he knows how to play, then we are going to put up some good numbers.”
The Panthers’ receiving situation is more complex. With Steve Smith facing a two-game suspension to start the season for punching teammate Ken Lucas in practice, the Panthers need to work other receivers into the starting lineup.
But No. 2 receiver Muhsin Muhammad missed five days of practice with bruised ribs suffered against the Eagles. D.J. Hackett hasn’t been on the field in two weeks because of a toe injury.
Still, Delhomme feels the offense has more options than at this time last year, when offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson was still implementing his system after he replaced Dan Henning.
“More volume isn’t always necessarily the answer to anything, but you can pick and choose what will work well this week,” Delhomme said.