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Brian Carlton. 21st November, 2005 - 2:32 am

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Who are you? Fans of the Carolina Panthers really want to know the answer to that question, after Sunday?s 13-3 loss to the Bears. Granted, they lost to the best defense in the league, but some holes were exposed that have been around for a few weeks now. Time to break things down and see if Carolina can survive as is.

Problem #1

A Leaky Offensive Line. We?ve seen it through most of the season. The line isn?t opening up holes for the run game and falls apart in protection. It got so bad on Sunday that Coach Fox was bringing in both tight ends for max protection, just so Jake would have more than two seconds in the pocket. Plus, the Panthers are averaging only 3 yards a carry, which is almost a cardinal sin considering there?s Deshaun Foster and Stephen Davis in the backfield.

How did it get like this? The simple answer is that the line is going through some growing pains. This is the first year most of these guys are playing together and it shows.

Watching Sunday?s game, you?d think it was Travelle Wharton?s first time on the field. A few more games like that and it?ll be his last. He was used and abused by the Bears? defense, after getting rave reviews the first half of the year. What changed? The quality of the opponents. It?s easy to beat down Bubba the rookie, just coming out of college. A little harder when Bubba?s had a few years to learn the deal and is a Pro Bowler.

Point blank, when the team lined up against Tampa Bay, they didn?t have to face Simeon Rice, who was out on suspension and against New England, that was before the return of Teddy Bruschi. Honestly, as a whole this line hasn?t been challenged all year. They?ve only had to deal with one or two stars, which is easy when the rest of the defense is just average.

The solution?s something that all Panther fans will wince when they hear. You?ve just got to let them play. It?s weird because with an offensive line, there?s nothing really you can do to make them better. Subbing someone else in usually won?t do the trick, well unless the new kid is like 6-8 and weighs 370. In that case just haul him in with a crane and tell him not to move. If that?s a problem, offer a cookie.

In the real world, these guys have to play together, in practice and in games, get to know each other?s mindset. That way when it comes gametime, you know where everyone else will be and you can do your job. Look at the great O-lines for Dallas and Green Bay in the 90s. It took several years for those lines to jell, time spent getting used to each other. Against the Bears, it was clear the Panthers were clueless as they had to shift and move around, creating huge holes for the Bears to run right through.

Problem #2

Why did the pass rush die? I don?t remember being invited to the funeral but trust me it was buried on Sunday. Why is that a concern? Because if you can?t beat the Chicago frontline, how are you going to knock out Indy in the Super Bowl? Ask Jake Delhomme what pressure does to a quarterback. 8 sacks on the day and he was running scared most of the time. What did the Panthers have? Zero. It?s not like this is a bad line. Tell me who you?d rather have than Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker and Brentson Buckner? Add in Jordan Carstens and they?re decent. And it?s not like they?ve coughed up a ton of yards or points for that matter, with an 8th ranked defense. But a good pass rush breaks down the offense. They can?t think, just react. Once you?re in the quarterback?s head, it?s easier to manage the game on your terms, rather than playing at the speed of the other team. That?s how Chicago can win by just putting up 13 points a game.

Injuries are part of the problem and it?ll help when Julius Peppers fully recovers from his broken hand. But aside from that, the line is just burned out. When the Panthers score points now, it?s usually by the Jake and Steve Smith show, a quick march down the field through the air. That doesn?t give the defense a lot of time to rest. Check the box scores. In games where the offense was a bit more balanced like in Minnesota and Tampa Bay, the defense stayed off the field longer and so they could explode for sacks and tackles. Now against the same type of competition, the sacks aren?t coming as easy and opponents are slipping through the tackles. Not to point fingers, but isn?t that what Thomas Davis was drafted to do? Tackle and lock up the other team?s running game? It?s a little early, but the word bust comes to mind. 1st round picks aren?t supposed to be used on players who only start on special teams.

With the playoffs coming up fast, Carolina?s got an ugly schedule that includes a rematch against Tampa Bay and two against the increasingly desperate Falcons. If they can fix the problems in time, they?ll be on a plane to Ford Field come January. If not, there?s another Detroit tradition Panther fans will be joining in with. Repeating that time honored saying ?there?s always next year?.