The Panthers' wish came true as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 262 yards and three touchdowns in the team's 28-21 victory.
Jonathan Stewart said via Twitter after the game that "Double Trouble is back," and it appears as though he may be on to something. The dynamic duo will have another weak run defense to dissect next week when Buffalo comes to town.
The Panthers have won two straight after starting off the season 0-3. The two victories have come against tumultuous teams, but are victories nonetheless. There are still several areas that need addressing before the schedule turns sour in November.
Special teams again failed the Panthers, allowing a blocked field goal attempt and a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Jake Delhomme returned to his shaky ways, completing nine of 17 passes for 65 yards and a touchdown to accompany two interceptions. His second interception was returned by Tampa Bay's Tanard Jackson for a 26-yard touchdown to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
Further compounding the problems in the passing game, Steve Smith had one catch for four yards. Smith was double-teamed most of the day, and the other receivers looked lost in trying to get him free. When Smith was able to get open downfield, long throws by Delhomme sailed yards over his head.
The Panthers' defense, much maligned during the three-game losing streak that opened the season, has shown great improvement in the last two weeks. The defense held the Bucs to seven points, notched four sacks, and picked off a pass.
The game turned chippy just before halftime, when Panthers' special teams ace Dante Wesley delivered a crushing blow to the Bucs' Pro Bowl return-man Clifton Smith on a punt. The problem was, Wesley beat the ball to the spot and the hit was obviously very early. Pushing and shoving commenced as Smith lay motionless on the ground, and Wesley was eventually ejected from the game following the officials' discussion regarding the play.
The Panthers scored 21 consecutive points from the second quarter through most of the third. Touchdown runs from Williams and Stewart sandwiched Delhomme's one-yard touchdown pass to Jeff King that was set up by Thomas Davis' interception on the Bucs' first play of the second half.
The Bucs would not go quietly, however, and returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown before intercepting Delhomme on the Panthers' ensuing drive. The Bucs would be forced to punt, but would return another Delhomme interception for a 26-yard touchdown on the following drive.
The Panthers then put the game squarely on the shoulders of Double Trouble, embarking on a drive that lasted just over eight minutes and covered 80 yards. On that drive, the Panthers called runs on 15 of 16 plays with Williams and Stewart carrying eight and seven times respectively. Delhomme threw one pass, a four-yard completion to Steve Smith that would account for his only appearance in the stat book.
As they say, a win is a win no matter how ugly it is. Let's break down the particulars and see where the Panthers excelled and where they need to improve before Buffalo comes knocking.
/\ Double Trouble. The Panthers caught their first glimpse of the Double Trouble of old on Sunday, as Williams and Stewart combined for 262 yards and three touchdowns. With Delhomme's struggles continuing, the Panthers took the ball out of his hands and put it into the arms of the tandem that carried them to a 12-4 record and a playoff appearance a year ago.
/\ Julius Peppers. After an uninspired start to the season, Peppers has caught fire after the bye week. Pep recorded seven tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble on Sunday in what was by far his most complete effort of the year. Pep could be seen regularly chasing down ball carriers and wreaking havoc in the backfield.
/\ Everette Brown. For the second week in a row, the rookie defensive lineman earned his keep, providing a presence in the backfield nearly every time he was on the field. He didn't tally a sack, but did get credit for a forced fumble after reaching Bucs' quarterback Josh Johnson and stripping him as he prepared to pass.
/\ Charles Johnson. Another defensive end, you ask? Yes. Johnson was responsible for the other two Panthers' sacks and showed a bit of the talent that has raised the ears of Panthers' fans in the last couple of years. He also forced two fumbles.
/\ Thomas Davis. Davis continues to shine on defense for the Panthers. He lead the team in tackles yet again, notching eight solo tackles while recording the only interception for the Panthers on Sunday. His two pass deflections also led the team.
/\ Play Calling. Finally, John Fox and company figured out that handing the ball to either Williams or Stewart 40+ times a game will usually spell a win against a lesser opponent. In the last two weeks, the running game has set its anchor in the Panthers game plan. Regardless of what happens during the rest of the season, they will need to start each week by establishing their intent to run the ball.
/\ Defensive Scheme. The Panthers defense is finally starting to catch on to Ron Meeks' scheme. They are pressuring the quarterback and are not allowing many big plays. The Panthers allowed the Bucs to go down the field and put the ball in the end-zone on their first possession, but allowed no points after that. With the team's struggles on offense, the defense will have to continue to step up and improve.
\/ Jake Delhomme. Delhomme once again shook the foundations of this team's trust in his arm on Sunday by throwing two interceptions that were, in a word, bad. His inability to hit Steve Smith down the field was put under a microscope in Tampa, as the ball continuously sailed several yards over Smith's head on deep throws. With the success of the ground game in recent weeks, teams will be looking to stack the box and force Delhomme to beat them. If that's the case, the Panthers are in trouble.
\/ Steve Smith. Smith had this to say after the game: "I am no longer an asset to this team." When players start making statements like that, the ball starts rolling downhill. It is obvious that Smith is concerned about his lack of involvement in the Panthers' offense. However, Smith hasn't been able to get open or make the tough catches like he has in the past. Smith's stardom came about in large part because of his ability to go get balls that most other receivers couldn't and wouldn't. Sure, Smith would be better suited with a better quarterback, but his trademark style is slowly starting to lose a touch of its flashiness. Most importantly, though, those types of comments should stay behind closed doors.
\/ Receiving corps. Where is the Panthers' number two receiver? Matter of fact, WHO is the Panthers' number two receiver? Any takers? Buehler...Buehler...? Someone HAS to step up if for no other reason than to free up Smith a few times a game. Muhsin Muhammad has finally lost his mojo, it seems, and after that there isn't another receiver with enough experience to provide a legitimate threat. Dwayne Jarrett is a flat out bust. Kenny Moore doesn't get enough time on the field to make much of a difference. No receiver has caught a touchdown pass this year. Need I say more?
\/ Special Teams. If this Panthers' team decides they want to turn this season around, they will need to address their special teams units as one of their first orders of business. The Panthers gave up their second return touchdown of the year on Sunday, and allowed a blocked field goal attempt. That's a ten-point swing that could have cost them the game.
\/ Dante Wesley. This is an issue that will reach the NFL audience as a whole and I would be remiss if I didn't at least offer an opinion on the topic. I saw the play live and couldn't believe what I saw, and will be posting further thoughts soon. The bottom line is that Wesley beat the ball to the spot and delivered a crunching blow to a returner who really had no defense other than a fair catch signal. The ejection was an attempt to keep the game from boiling over by the referees, and the one-game suspension is likely a result of the concussion Clifton Smith has been diagnosed with because of the play.
\/ Overall optimism. Carolina: Where 2-3 feels like 0-5.
The Panthers will host Buffalo on Sunday in a 4:05 PM EST game at Bank of America Stadium. The Bills beat the slumping New York Jets yesterday in overtime, but lost starting quarterback Trent Edwards early in the second quarter to a concussion. His status for next Sunday is unclear at this point. The Panthers will wear their black jerseys at home for the first time this season.