Panthers in defense mode
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó The Carolina Panthers, winners of four straight games, have the third-best record in the NFL and already have surpassed last year’s win total.
They’re 6-0 at home, 8-2 overall, lead the NFC South and appear in great position to end a two-year playoff drought.
Now that that’s out of the way: What’s wrong with them?
Why have they struggled in consecutive weeks to beat Oakland and Detroit, two of the worst teams in the NFL? Where has the passing game gone? What happened to that dominant defense against Detroit?
And, most importantly, will they get out of this funk now that the schedule no longer includes homecoming opponents?
Coach John Fox may have known those questions were coming Monday, but it didn’t make him any less irritated.
“That’s how you guys look at it. You don’t play the game,” Fox said. “They have to play the game. They’re all hard. They didn’t look at those last two games like they were a walk in the park.”
Fox has always staunchly defended his players, and Monday was no different. He quickly heaped praise on the winless Lions, pointed out that Carolina’s running game was dominant and Jake Delhomme rebounded from his four-interception debacle a week earlier to be turnover-free. But the Panthers needed all of those team-record 264 yards rushing to overcome a suspect defensive performance in a 31-22 win over the Lions (0-10)A week earlier, the defense bailed out an anemic offense in a 17-6 win over Oakland (2-8).
“We’ve got to play more consistently,” linebacker Na’il Diggs said. “Just like last week, we came out a little sluggish and they were able to get some early rushing yards. In the second half we finally got a handle on it, but by then they’ve got 80 yards rushing and you’re just trying to contain the fire at that point.”
Rookie Kevin Smith rushed for a career-high 112 yards for the Lions, only the second back to go over 100 against the Panthers this season. Many of his yards came after an inordinate number of missed tackles. The secondary also somehow allowed Detroit’s only consistent receiving threat, Calvin Johnson, to get wide open for a 29-yard touchdown catch.
It took Jon Beason’s stop of Daunte Culpepper on a 2-point conversion try ó and a friendly decision by the officials not to call Beason for a facemask penalty ó to prevent the Lions from tying the game midway through the fourth quarter. Charles Godfrey then intercepted Culpepper on Detroit’s next possession to end the suspense.
“It’s ugly, but we’ll take it however we get it,” Godfrey said.
Indeed, the Panthers won despite holding the ball for less than 26 minutes. They had the ball for less than 23 minutes in the win over the Raiders.
Carolina has completed 17 passes in the past two games combined, with Steve Smith being held to seven catches for 68 yards.
“Two weeks ago was probably one of our poorer performances on the season. I thought (Sunday) was much better,” Fox said of the air game after Delhomme completed 10 of 19 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown. “But as we move forward, I think it’s an area we need to improve. There are really not too many phases of our team right now where I think we’ve arrived.”
There are few complaints about the running game, which spearheaded Carolina’s comeback from a 10-0 deficit Sunday. Jonathan Stewart rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown and DeAngelo Williams added 120 yards and two scores. It was the kind of running dominance Fox has been trying to establish since Stephen Davis led Carolina to the Super Bowl five years ago.
That was the last time the Panthers started 8-2. That team went on to lose its next three before reeling off six straight wins, including three in the playoffs.
This year’s team faces a tall task to hold off Tampa Bay (7-3) and Atlanta (6-4) in the division. The Panthers visit the Falcons on Sunday, then go to Green Bay. They return home to face the Buccaneers and Denver, then visit the New York Giants and New Orleans.
The combined record of those opponents: 38-22. The teams the Panthers have played so far are a combined 42-58.
Despite the defiance over the questioning after wins, several Panthers agreed they have to play better.
“That’s the key thing,” safety Chris Harris said. “We’re not where we want to be, and we’re still 8-2.”