Despite win, Panthers still not hitting stride
November 14, 2006 8:14pm CST
The Carolina Panthers looked as sick as Steve Smith felt in the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Unable to run, convert third downs or avoid costly turnovers Monday night, the Panthers didn't look much better than they did 15 days earlier in their stunning loss to Dallas. Things got a lot better in the second half as Smith fought through his bout with the flu and caught the decisive touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and Carolina took advantage of four turnovers to pull out a 24-10 win. After a first half in which Carolina generated no points, three first downs and only 98 yards, the Panthers (5-4) still have plenty of problems. It also meant a less-than-festive atmosphere in the locker room Tuesday morning. "What we've been doing, we don't hold ourselves to those type of standards," defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said. "We have higher expectations here and what we've been doing over the past eight games hasn't been cutting it. I actually like the mood in the locker room. No one is jumping around or celebrating." The good thing for Carolina is its rivals in the NFC South are also struggling. The Panthers are tied with Atlanta for second place in the division, just a game behind first-place New Orleans after both teams lost last Sunday. "We're right in the thick of things," said veteran safety Mike Minter, who recovered one of Tampa Bay's second-half fumbles. But the question for the Panthers is whether they really turned things around offensively in the second half against the Buccaneers. Or did they just take advantage of Tampa Bay's four turnovers in five possessions? "Our defense kept us in the game in the first half. We had some struggles offensively," coach John Fox said. "We made some adjustments and got a little better organized." Those adjustments included nearly abandoning the running game. DeShaun Foster had 48 yards on 13 carries. DeAngelo Williams, in his first game back after a high ankle sprain, managed only 19 yards on seven carries. Fullback Brad Hoover scored the Panthers' lone rushing touchdown. Carolina fell two spots to 28th out of 32 teams in rushing with 92.3 yards per game. But the Panthers were able to get the passing game going in the second half. Smith, despite being ill, had eight catches for 149 yards and Keyshawn Johnson caught the go-ahead touchdown pass in the third quarter. "Our coaches did a good job recognizing what it was we could take advantage of in the passing game," Johnson said. "We were able to pick them apart down the field, so everybody is happy." The defense was the bright spot. Julius Peppers, after going two games without a sack, had three and recovered a fumble by frazzled Buccaneers rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. Ken Lucas and Shaun Williams had interceptions, and linebacker Chris Draft forced a fumble. "We got some pressure on them," said Peppers, who took over the NFL lead with 11 sacks. "The D-line helped me out a little bit. I'll take those three. I'm happy to get them and hopefully I can get three next week, too." The Panthers also finished strong. After blowing three fourth-quarter leads in the first eight weeks, the Panthers outscored the Buccaneers 24-3 in the second half. "You like to start fast, but it's the way you finish and we finished strong," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "That's what we're going to take out of this game. We hadn't played in two weeks, so you might have a little rust on you. But you knock that off, come out the second half and play some ball."