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NFL: Punchless Panthers

By Mike Cranston
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó So much for the Carolina Panthers grabbing control of the NFC South.
An anemic running game, dropped passes, three interceptions, awful special teams and a tired defense made sure of that.
The Panthers went to Tampa Bay Sunday having not allowed a touchdown in nine quarters and a 100-yard rusher all year. Three hours later, the Buccaneers 27-3 rout tempered the runaway enthusiasm from Carolina’s 4-1 start.
Not ready to relinquish the division to their rivals just yet, the Bucs got 115 yards rushing from Warrick Dunn. They held Carolina to 40 yards on the ground and forced Jake Delhomme into numerous mistakes.
And the Panthers were never in it. The first series ended with Carolina’s third blocked punt ó and the second brought back for a touchdown ó this season.
“I don’t think anybody in that locker room, coaches, players, everybody, is pleased with the way we performed,” coach John Fox said Monday.
Their first loss in Tampa in six years left the Panthers (4-2) tied with Tampa Bay (4-2) and Atlanta (4-2) atop a surprisingly competitive division. No team is below .500, with last-place New Orleans (3-3) visiting Carolina Sunday.
“We’ve had some success there, obviously,” said Delhomme, who had been 4-0 at Tampa Bay. “And we didn’t play well, and it started off bad from the beginning.”
Coming in having outscored their last two opponents 58-9, the Panthers quickly wilted in the heat.
There was another alarming breakdown in punt protection after Carolina’s three-and-out on the first possession. Geno Hayes came in untouched from the middle, blocked Jason Baker’s punt and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown.
In Week 2, Chicago’s Darrell McClover came in from the outside to block Baker’s punt and it was returned for a touchdown. Two weeks later, Baker dropped a snap against the Falcons, leading to another block.
While the Panthers recovered to win against the Bears and Falcons, the block Sunday was the start of an ugly day.
Delhomme made poor decisions and had passes bounce off receivers. The ground game managed only 2 yards per carry and produced an epidemic of three-and-outs.
“We didn’t put ourselves in position. We weren’t good on first and second down,” Delhomme said. “All of us, every one of us, had a hand in it.”
Delhomme’s first interception late in the first quarter, which clanged off tight end Dante Rosario, led to a touchdown that ended the nine-quarter streak.
The defense, coming in ranked fourth in the league, couldn’t stop Dunn or Carolina’s nemesis, Jeff Garcia. In his return after being benched earlier in the season, Garcia didn’t have to worry about invisible defensive end Julius Peppers, who was held without a sack and had just one quarterback pressure.
The loss produced several concerns. While the offensive line didn’t allow a sack for a third straight game, the mounting injuries contributed to the lack of a running game. With center Ryan Kalil and right tackle Jeff Otah out with ankle injuries, the Panthers have had what was supposed to be their starting offensive line intact for a little over two quarters all season.
Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams have been inconsistent. A week after combining for over 195 yards rushing, they had 39 on 17 carries.
Delhomme has had two bad games since his return from elbow surgery ó he lost two fumbles against Minnesota ó and both resulted in losses
Steve Smith had six catches for 112 yards against Tampa Bay, but had several drops. One pass went through his hands and was intercepted. Another drop would have been a touchdown.
And the defense looked nowhere near the dominant unit that shut down struggling Kansas City.
“Any time you lose all three phases of the game you are going to lose the game. We didn’t do well on any phase,” safety Chris Harris said. “That’s one thing we are going to have to go back, look at, correct and move on when we play New Orleans.”
The Saints 34-3 rout of Oakland put them back in the race in the NFC South. Another loss and the Panthers could be looking up at three teams in the division.
“We had a two-game streak, then we lose one. We had a two-game streak, then we lose one,” Williams said. “It’s time to get on that two-game streak again.”

NOTES: WR Muhsin Muhammad (knee), LB Thomas Davis (ankle) and LB Adam Seward (hamstring) were injured against the Bucs. Fox listed all three as day to day. … Jeff Otah missed his second straight game with an ankle injury despite returning to practice last week. “We just wanted to see if he was ready, and we deemed he wasn’t,” Fox said. … Stewart took a hard hit after returning the opening kickoff and PR Mark Jones replaced him for the rest of the game. “I think he just got a little dazed and he wasn’t ready for the next one,” Fox said. “We liked what we saw with Mark and stayed with him.” Fox wouldn’t say if Jones will remain in that role against New Orleans.

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