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NFL: Troubled Panthers had ugly preseason

Associated Press
CHARLOTTEó The Carolina Panthers can only hope the preseason really doesn’t mean anything.
If the all the missed tackles, fumbles, injuries, mistakes, and depth issues carry over to the real games, there will be a new NFC South champion in 2009.
“It’s nothing to worry about, you know, 0-4,” safety Chris Harris insisted minutes after Carolina closed a winless exhibition slate Thursday with a 21-10 loss to Pittsburgh. “The Lions went 4-0 in the preseason and went 0-16 (last year), so you can’t read into the preseason too much. When it starts counting is when it will matter.”
Harris, one of five Panthers to miss tackles on rookie running back Isaac Redman’s 10-yard touchdown Thursday, was part of a locker room trying to emphasize the positive. Coach John Fox even claimed the defensive performance was better than a week earlier when Carolina fell flat against Baltimore.
“Our first team didn’t get a whole lot of opportunities,” he said.
The first team actually played a series longer than the Steelers starting offense ó and allowed Pittsburgh’s backups to score. Carolina’s offense managed one first down on seven plays and finished the practice games with one touchdown in about seven quarters of work.
But as Fox and the coaching staff prepare to trim 22 players from the roster by Saturday afternoon, there is hope the Panthers will finally be healthy when Philadelphia arrives for the season opener Sept. 13.
Middle linebacker Jon Beason, the Panthers’ top tackler in each of the past two seasons and the leader of the defense, is confident he’ll return from his sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Beason, out since Aug. 22, indicated he’ll start running this weekend and plans to practice next week.
“I wasn’t supposed to be playing,” Beason said, defiantly.
The Panthers need some of that attitude on a defense still stinging from the loss of top run-stuffer Maake Kemoeatu, out for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon. Newly acquired defensive tackle Louis Leonard played some Thursday and could become the replacement starter, although much-maligned Nick Hayden did have a tackle for a loss and a shared sack.
Safety Charles Godfrey also hopes to play against the Eagles with a cast on his broken left hand, but it could make it difficult to tackle ó Carolina’s glaring weakness in the games that don’t count.
“It’s one thing we’re correcting,” Harris said.
The offense was supposed to be the strong point after it carried Carolina to a 12-4 mark last season. But DeAngelo Williams’ tackle-breaking 25-yard run against Miami was the only touchdown for the first-teamers. Receiver Steve Smith missed a couple of games and the Panthers threw to him little when he played, perhaps to shield him from injury.
Williams’ backfield partner, Jonathan Stewart, is the biggest puzzle. The team has had 48 practices since the first April minicamp. Stewart has participated in eight of them ó and none since Aug. 10 ó with an undefined Achilles’ tendon injury.
“Hopefully I’ll be ready for Philadelphia, but we’ll see how things play out,” Stewart said after watching his fourth straight game in street clothes.
Cut day Saturday will mean nerves for players such as Jeremy Leman, Mortty Ivy and Hilee Taylor. But the Panthers may also have to adjust their roster once cuts are in to find someone who can catch a punt.
In a preseason where the Panthers had 15 fumbles in four games, many came on muffs. Captain Munnerlyn, Kenny Moore and Larry Beavers all bobbled punts against the Steelers. With Ryne Robinson released last week, the Panthers have no experience at either return job.
“Believe it or not, we do practice catching punts,” Fox said.
The Panthers won’t practice anything for a while. The team’s next full workout isn’t until Wednesday, when they’ll try to forget everything that happened in the past month and prepare to begin a brutal schedule against the Eagles.
“We’ve had so many injuries throughout the preseason it’s been tough to get an indication of what the Panthers are going to be in ’09,” Beason said. “Getting guys healthy, moving forward, I think we’ll be ready to go.”

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