The Carolina Panthers aren't nearly the team they were for the first three weeks of the 2009 season. They are far removed from the dreadful 0-3 start and the horrible play calling that doomed them to it.
With that being said, the Panthers are also a long way from being the team that went 12-4 and captured the NFC South title last season.
The Panthers traveled to New Orleans this weekend to take on one of the NFL's only two remaining undefeated teams in the Saints, a division rival they have had great success against recently—especially in the Superdome. After racing to a lead that still sat at 17-6 heading into halftime, the Panthers succumbed to their nemesis that had been absent the last few weeks: turnovers. The Panthers fumbled five times Sunday, losing three of them. The only difference was that this time, the turnovers came from unusual suspects.
DeAngelo Williams had a great day rushing the ball, and a great game overall...if you can look past his two critical errors. Williams picked up 149 yards on 21 carries while scoring two touchdowns. His first score came on the second play of the game as Williams raced 66 yards for the score, silencing the rowdy home crowd. He would score again in the first quarter, this time from seven yards out to make it 14-0 in favor of the Panthers. As a whole, Williams would pick up just over seven yards per carry on the day, and if you subtract the long touchdown run, he still averaged over four yards per carry. Pretty impressive, right?
Right. Now comes the cloud cover. The Panthers had embarked on an epic drive to answer the Saints' four-play, eighty-yard drive to start the third quarter. A botched first down exchange near the goal line between quarterback Jake Delhomme and Jonathan Stewart resulted in a six-yard loss for Carolina, who would eventually find themselves facing third-and-goal from the six. Delhomme dropped back to pass and, after going through all of his reads, checked down to Williams who had come free just inside the endzone. Delhomme fired a pass to Williams, but the pass bounced off his chest, falling incomplete and forcing the Panthers to settle for three points instead of a touchdown. That play turned out to be huge, as it would allow New Orleans to stay within one score at 20-13.
Fast forward to the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. The Saints are ahead by a field goal and the Panthers have just forced a three-and-out to get the ball back with two minutes to go. Captain Munnerlyn makes an iffy call to let the ball bounce at around the 13-yard line rather than fielding a fair catch, allowing Saints' rookie Malcom Jenkins to save the ball from going into the endzone and force Carolina to start from the shadow of their own goal posts.
With their backs against the wall, the Panthers choose to hand the ball off to Williams to get some breathing room. That's when disaster strikes. Williams was virtually stuffed at the line of scrimmage and the flailing arm of the Saints' Anthony Hargrove jarred the ball loose from his grip then scooped it up and took a step into the endzone to put New Orleans up by ten and all but seal the game.
The lost fumble was Williams' third of the season after going more than 500 carries without one, and it couldn't have come at a worse time. Stewart also lost a fumble on the day and had one of the more disappointing outings of his short career, gaining just 24 yards on 13 carries.
Delhomme did not throw an interception for the second consecutive week, but did not have a touchdown pass either. He was charged with the other lost fumble on the day for Carolina, but it will go down as a meaningless stat since it was fourth down and he fumbled the ball while being sacked, meaning the Saints would have received the ball at that spot anyways. Delhomme completed 17 of 30 passes for 201 yards.
His counterpart, Drew Brees, was more deadly as he completed 24 of 35 for 330 yards, one touchdown and an interception to Chris Gamble that halted an early Saints drive that seemed destined for at least three points.
It was a tale of two halves for Brees and the Panthers' defense. After allowing only six points on two John Carney field goals in the first half, Carolina's ability to keep the Saints' receivers in check faltered. Brees found Devery Henderson on the third play of the third quarter, on a third down nonetheless, for a 63-yard gain, setting up Pierre Thomas' 10-yard touchdown run on the next play. After the Panthers' long drive that ended with just three points, the Saints tied it up with another long third down play, this time a 54-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Robert Meachem.
From that point, the Saints played like the undefeated team they were and still are, coming up with an answer to everything the Panthers tried to throw at them while turning in a performance that could be considered a textbook example of a "bend-but-don't-break defense." Twice in the fourth quarter the Panthers were forced to give the ball back to the Saints after crossing midfield.
After the fumble recovery for a touchdown with just under two minutes to go, the Panthers got the ball back and marched down the field, with Delhomme at one point completing four straight passes, including two in a row to Dwayne Jarrett. The Panthers moved all the way to the Saints' eight yard line then elected to run the ball with 41 seconds remaining and no timeouts. Williams reached the two and the Panthers spiked the ball with 26 seconds remaining. Delhomme's next two passes fell incomplete, however, and the Panthers turned the ball over to New Orleans on downs, allowing Brees to take a knee and celebrate the Saints' first 8-0 start in franchise history.
Another bit of bad news for the Panthers was Thomas Davis' knee injury. It didn't look good when he was lying on the ground clutching the injured limb, it didn't look good when he looked visibly shaken after the game and declined to talk to reporters, and it didn't look good Monday when an MRI revealed that he had torn his ACL, meaning Carolina will be without their most productive defensive player for the rest of the season. Landon Johnson replaced him Sunday and will likely replace him in the starting lineup.
For all intents and purposes, the Panthers should be somewhat satisfied with a performance that gave the best team in the NFC a bonafide run for it's money. The game was closer than the ten-point separation that showed on the Superdome scoreboard at its conclusion, and the Panthers showed that their number one pass defense could turn in a decent performance against one of the more explosive quarterbacks in the league. On the other hand, the loss goes down as the fifth of the year for Carolina, already more than they had all of last season. With the wild card teams currently resting at 5-3, the Panthers find themselves in an unfavorable position as they prepare to enter a less-than-friendly second half schedule that includes two trips to the Meadowlands, one to Foxboro, and primetime matchups against the gritty Dolphins and the Vikings. That's not to mention the return legs of the Falcons' and Saints' season series.
Nothing is impossible in this league, as has been evidenced several times before, but the view of the postseason is becoming foggier each week for the Panthers. Let's take a look at the positives and negatives from Sunday's tough loss.
/\ Tyrell Sutton. The mystery of who would start at fullback for the Panthers was answered on the first play of the game, as Sutton tallied a slew of firsts. He was active for his first career NFL game, made his first NFL start, got his first NFL carry and picked up his first nine NFL yards all on the first play of the game. Sutton filled in nicely at fullback for the Panthers, blocking the way for DeAngelo to amass 149 yards on the ground while running for 15 yards on three carries and catching a pass for eleven more. The rookie out of Northwestern didn't look much like a guy playing in his first NFL game, and with the way the return game is going, I'd be okay with letting him return some kicks once one or both of our fullbacks are back healthy.
/\ Jon Beason. Beason led the Panthers will 11 solo tackles on Sunday, and also had a fumble recovery and a pass deflection. With Thomas Davis now out for the year, Beason will have to step up to an even higher level to keep the Carolina linebacking corps as one of the best in the game. Based on what we've seen from him so far in his career, he will have no problem taking on the challenge.
/\ Offensive line. Jake was sacked only twice and seemed to have ample time to throw the ball for most of the day. DeAngelo tallied another big running day and, for the second straight week, a 65+ yard run. The line looked a little shaky at the beginning of the season, but is starting to return to form from last year.
/\ Gary Barnidge. Next time you get a chance, check out Gary's hands. They are absolutely huge, which helped him reel in two very tough catches on Sunday. He finished with three receptions for 46 yards, and will fit in nicely for this team for years to come.
/\ Jake Delhomme. For the second week in a row, Jake played mistake free football. As I said above, he will be charged with a lost fumble on one of his two sacks but it wouldn't have made any difference whether he held onto the ball or not since it was a fourth down play. Delhomme seemed to go through his reads with more patience and wasn't afraid to throw check downs when he needed to. His deep ball has apparently lost most of its touch, however. Sunday was the first time all season that the Saints had not recorded an interception.
/\ Dwayne Jarrett. Dwayne set a career high for receptions with four, and gained 30 yards Sunday. He was also a target on two straight plays in the Panthers' last minute desperation attempt at a comeback. On top of all that, Jarrett turned in a solid blocking performance and even broke a tackle to gain a couple of extra yards. He still has lots of room for improvement, especially with being able to out-muscle defensive backs who are much smaller than him. He's got a Randy Moss-style body and showed great hands in college, his game just needs to hurry up and translate to the pros before its too late.
/\ DeAngelo Williams. For the majority of the game Sunday, Williams was a monster. He finished with 149 yards and two touchdowns, including a 66-yard scamper on the second play of the game. While that is all well and good...
\/ DeAngelo Williams. ...he was also the culprit on two plays that directly affected the outcome of the game. He dropped a third-and-goal pass on the goal line that would have put the Panthers up by 11 instead of seven, and fumbled the ball on his own one yard line on the first play of the Panthers' final attempt at a comeback late in the fourth quarter. From hero to zero in the blink of an eye...
\/ Jonathan Stewart. J-Stew was unusually ineffective Sunday, averaging less than two yards per carry in his 13 attempts. He had a ten yard carry in the mix, meaning that in his other 12 attempts he gained just 14 yards. To make matters worse, Stewart also lost a fumble, another uncharacteristic move for the second-year back.
\/ Julius Peppers. As good as he is when he's on, he's as bad when he's not. When you're making $1 million per game, you had better play like it or you are going to be the target of a lot of criticism. Just goes to show you how quick good can be erased when you open up a can of worms like Julius did in the offseason. That's two games now where you'd think he'd be playing lights out—in Dallas in front of the world on Monday Night Football, and in New Orleans against the best team in the NFC—but he's ended up disappearing. Peppers finished with one tackle and one quarterback pressure after having six sacks in the last month. How many owners, GM's, coaches, and fans are going to be happy paying $1 million per tackle? I can count them on one hand and have five fingers left over...
\/ Turnovers. One way or the other, the turnovers just seem to be the elephant in the room for this team this year. We seem to have gotten our quarterback to understand what color jerseys we are wearing, but now our usually rock-solid running backs have gotten a case of fumbilitis. You can't win games in the NFL when you turn the ball over three times, and you certainly can't expect to beat a team like the Saints while doing it.
\/ Kick/Punt Returning. Whether it's Kenny Moore, Captain Munnerlyn, or Mike Goodson, somebody is going to have to eventually step up and do something when it comes to returning the ball. Every now and then it sure would be nice to be able to start from somewhere outside of our own 20-25 yard line. I'm not asking for a Devin Hester, I'd just like to have even a Mark Jones back. Somebody who at least poses a slight threat. Munnerlyn was scared to try to haul in the fair catch at the Panthers 13-yard line late in Sunday's game, allowing the Saints to down the ball at the two yard line, which led to the DW disaster. It seems like the confidence level for these guys is awfully low, and that's probably because we don't have 'A' kick returner. One time its Captain, then its Kenny, then its Mike...Name one guy the kick and punt returner and let him get all the reps. Or why not let Sutton get a couple of opportunities doing it? Can't get any worse...
\/ Blown lead. This one applies to just about everyone who had something to do with Sunday's game. Yes, the Saints are a highly explosive team that can put up points in a hurry, but it just doesn't bode well when you find yourself closing out a game that you led 17-3 at one point in a ten-point hole at 30-20. That means the Saints outscored the Panthers 27-3 from that point on, including 24-3 in the second half. That's the type of loss that demoralizes a team.
The Panthers will return to Charlotte for a pair of home games, their last two-game stretch at Bank of America Stadium all year. The Atlanta Falcons will be in town next Sunday for a 1:00PM EST kickoff. That game will go a long way towards straightening out the picture in the NFC South. If the Panthers were to win that game and the Saints, who already hold a three game lead and the tiebreaker against the Falcons, beat the lowly Rams, New Orleans would hold a four-game lead in the division with seven to play. The way the Saints have played thus far in 2009, that should be more than enough to bring them a division title.
Michael Turner will come to Charlotte fresh off of back to back monster weeks running the football; a tall order for a Panthers defense who has been suspect against the run throughout the season.