There are reasons for Carolina to feel confident. The dominant running game from 2008 has reappeared, Julius Peppers is on perhaps the best two-game stretch of his career and the Panthers have won two straight after an 0-3 start.
But the negatives are piling up, too. Jake Delhomme keeps throwing interceptions, Steve Smith is upset and the narrow, ugly victories of the past two weeks have come against the NFL’s doormats.
Through five games, it’s still tough to figure these Panthers.
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Sunday’s 28-21 win over winless Tampa Bay provided the contradictions. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart helped the Panthers (2-3) rush for 267 yards and the defense, led by Peppers’ two sacks, allowed only one touchdown.
Yet the passing game remains one of the league’s worst. After being held to one catch for four yards – the only passing play on Carolina’s 16-play, game-winning drive – Smith let out his frustrations in the locker room.
“I’m no longer an asset to this team,” he said.
Coach John Fox on Monday said he hadn’t talked to Smith about his comments, but said the constant double-teams he’s faced helped get the running game going.
“I can’t call the opponent up and ask them not to do that. They get to do what they want,” Fox said. “That opens up other things for our football team and gives us an opportunity to win.”
The Panthers ran the ball 48 times and passed 17 against the Buccaneers, with Williams (152 yards, 2 TDs) and Stewart (110 yards, 1 TD) looking like the duo that dominated the second half of last season. Williams’ game-winning 1-yard TD run with 29 seconds left capped an 8-minute drive that showed Carolina’s might up front.
“There were some times where they had nine in the box and we were still getting seven or eight yards because they were just moving guys out there,” Williams said.
But it could also be argued it was the only way the Panthers could win, with Delhomme ineffective again. He ran his season interception total to an NFL-high 10 when Tanard Jackson returned a pick 26 yards for the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Delhomme completed 9 of 17 passes for 65 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Delhomme and his Pro Bowl receiver Smith still haven’t connected for a touchdown or a pass longer than 30 yards.
Smith has only 21 catches, 20 behind the other Steve Smith with the New York Giants, who is tied for the NFL lead.
“Out of the 10 years I’ve been playing, I don’t think I’ve been on one team where all 53 guys are happy. Not one year,” linebacker Na’il Diggs said. “I’m not surprised that a couple of guys are upset or feel like they’re not an asset. I can kind of understand where Steve is coming from but he wears his heart on his sleeve, as everybody knows.”
Linebacker Jon Beason said Monday the defensive players have played with vigor since the 0-3 start had them ranked last in the league against the run. Washington managed 198 yards of offense and the Bucs had 245.
And while Beason created a story by calling out Peppers on a radio show and then apologizing for doing so, Peppers is on a tear. He’s recorded four sacks, five tackles for a loss, four quarterback hurries and one forced fumble in the two games since the incident.
“I think he’s played as well the last two games as I’ve seen him play, really, that I can remember,” Fox said. “He’s played exceptionally well.”
Newly signed Hollis Thomas continues to impress at nose tackle, clogging the middle and allowing the linebackers to make plays. Thomas Davis recorded eight more tackles and an interception Sunday as he continues his best pro season.
It’s just all those other problems are fighting for attention. The special teams not only gave up another touchdown – a 97-yard kickoff return in which Fox claims the Bucs had an illegal 3-man wedge – but gunner Dante Wesley was suspended one game Monday for a vicious hit on defenseless punt returner Clifton Smith.
“It was just a judgment error,” Fox said. “It’s not intentional. It’s not done maliciously. You’ve got to make a split-second decision.”
The Panthers on Sunday have a chance to even their record against Buffalo, which is 2-4 after beating the New York Jets in overtime. But the Bills have struggled and are allowing nearly 182 yards rushing per game, worst in the NFL.
That could mean another steady diet of Williams and Stewart, few passes by the mistake-prone Delhomme, and maybe another quiet day for Smith.
“Whenever you decide to throw the football, there are more working parts,” Fox said. “I think it’s whether you’d rather shoot a 3-pointer outside or a layup. Most guys would take the higher-percentage route, and that’s the layup.”