Panthers prepare game plan for high-scoring Cards
By MIKE CRANSTON
AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – When Ken Lucas was called for a pivotal pass interference penalty late in Carolina’s loss to the New York Giants in Week 16, it marked the first and only such penalty for the Panthers all season.
It also didn’t take long for this often-repeated snide response from cynical fans and skeptical analysts: How can you be called for interference when you’re never close to the receiver?
Carolina’s much maligned secondary better be in the vicinity of receivers Saturday when the Panthers (12-4) play their first playoff game in three years against pass-happy Arizona (10-7).
It’ll be a rematch of an October game in Charlotte that saw Kurt Warner throw for 381 yards. It was the most yards passing allowed by Carolina until the final week of the regular season, when Drew Brees of New Orleans torched the secondary for 386 yards.
The Panthers also allowed Tampa Bay’s Jeff Garcia to throw for 321 yards and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers 298.
But in what’s defined the Panthers’ turnaround season, they found a way to win all four games.
“We’ve won in every way imaginable this year, so we feel very confident going into the playoffs,” safety Chris Harris said after the Saints’ win.
As the Panthers enjoyed their third straight day away from the practice field Monday, defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac was preparing a game plan for the Cardinals’ high-scoring offense that features numerous big-play threats and a cagey, accurate quarterback with a quick release.
Warner’s big day in Carolina’s 27-23 win on Oct. 26 began a trend that has seen the Panthers allow at least 22 points in seven of their last nine games.
With a former defensive coordinator as a head coach and a history of success on that side of the ball, John Fox’s Panthers have become a team that plays high-scoring games. The Panthers have won games by scores of 31-22, 35-31, 38-23 and 33-31 in the second half of the season by riding breakout running back DeAngelo Williams and Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith.
Williams, who led the NFL with 20 touchdown in the regular season, and Smith, who was third in the NFL with 1,421 yards receiving, may need monster games for Carolina to keep up Saturday.
The 37-year-old Warner threw for 271 yards and two touchdowns in Arizona’s 30-24 home win over Atlanta on Saturday while the Panthers enjoyed a first-round bye.
The Atlanta win featured a spectacular 42-yard touchdown catch in double-coverage by Larry Fitzgerald, the 6-foot-3 receiver who had seven catches for 115 yards against Carolina.
Anquan Boldin, who caught two TD passes against Carolina, had a 71-yard touchdown catch against Atlanta, but injured his left hamstring on the play. It’s uncertain if he’ll play this week.
Arizona has another receiving option, Steve Breaston, who had nine catches for 91 yards against the Panthers.
“We had good coverage, but those receivers are big and strong,” Panthers linebacker Jon Beason said of the first meeting, which saw Carolina rally from a 17-3 third-quarter deficit
While Edgerrin James rushed for 73 yards against the Falcons, Arizona ranked last in the NFL in rushing in the regular season and managed only 50 yards on the ground in the first meeting with Carolina. James had only 17 yards and lost a fumble in Charlotte.
The Cards are a pass-first team, meaning Panthers cornerbacks Lucas, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall and safeties Harris and rookie Charles Godfrey will be tested – often.
Lucas has become the target of opposing teams. Criticized for playing too far off receivers, Lucas has struggled to contain big receivers. Gamble, who signed a lucrative contract extension in November, has had one of his best seasons, but has dropped numerous potential interceptions. Marshall, the nickel back, has struggled with his tackling.
Godfrey, who has done an adequate job as a rookie starter, still makes occasional assignment mistakes. Harris, who had an NFL-high eight forced fumbles last season, had two this season and none since Week 2.
“I think we moved the ball up and down the field the way that we wanted to,” Boldin said after the first meeting with Carolina. “We didn’t feel like they had answers for us especially when we went four wide with the no huddle package.”
The secondary would be helped if the Panthers can get pressure on Warner. Backup defensive end Charles Johnson had two sacks in the first meeting, but Carolina was frustrated by Warner’s quick release. Julius Peppers, who had a career-best 14O sacks this season, was held to one quarterback hurry.
But the Panthers made a defensive play when it counted. Beason picked off Warner’s deflected pass near the goal line early in the fourth quarter and the Panthers clinging to a 24-23 lead.
“It was a tough game for us,” Beason said. “Second round of the playoffs, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”