CHARLOTTE -- All offseason, the Carolina Panthers have emphasized getting better play from the offensive line.
So perhaps the most impressive part of Sunday's 24-9 win over Atlanta was that the guys who implemented that plan get so little time to work on it. The offensive line, the unit on a team that most demands continuity, was thrown into the blender again during the latest win, with three guys finishing the game other than where they began it.
The results were solid: Quarterback Jake Delhomme enjoyed his first sackless game of the season, coming against the league's individual sack leader (Atlanta's John Abraham) and they got just enough of a ground game on a day when the pass set up the run.
"We've got great depth on this offensive line, we've got confidence in the guys we've got backing up, and if they're coming in, we didn't think twice about it," said center Ryan Kalil, who stayed in place all day with right guard Keydrick Vincent. "We were able to plug in the guys we needed to and get after them in the second half."
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The shuffle started when left tackle Jordan Gross went down with a concussion in the first quarter. Left guard Travelle Wharton had to slide outside, and backup Geoff Hangartner came in at guard. In the third quarter, rookie right tackle Jeff Otah left with a right ankle sprain, and Jeremy Bridges came on.
It was similar to the opener in San Diego, when Wharton left with a knee injury, and Otah had another short-term absence.
"Both times, those backups responded well," coach John Fox said.
The Panthers have been grooming a young line for years. The base has been laid through the draft, with six of the nine on the roster being original selections.
Gross and Otah were first-rounders, Kalil a late second, Wharton a third, Hangartner a fifth and inactive rookie Mackenzy Bernardeau a seventh. The others (Vincent, Bridges and Frank Omiyale) were cost-effective and physical free-agent pickups.
So while they came into the year with no starters in the same spot as the year before, they did have some degree of institutional knowledge.
"That's what happens when you start developing players," Fox said. "A lot's been made of guys being in different spots this last offseason, but at least they have been with us."
Wharton proved able to handle playing tackle again, and should since he's started 33 games there. Hangartner has 21 starts at center and guard in his four years. Bridges has 24 starts, split between right tackle (14) and right guard (10).
"It's not necessarily on the fly," running back DeAngelo Williams said of the makeshift line. "Those guys practice, too. It's just that they don't have a one by their name. With Travelle going to tackle and putting "Piggy" (Hangartner) at left guard, the guys are playing positions they're accustomed to. To switch those guys around and not miss a beat, whether it was pass or run, speaks well for them.
"It (breeds) a lot of confidence."
The just-in-case work is limited, however.
Fox said the backups probably got between 20 and 30 percent of the weekly practice snaps, with the rest of their work coming as scout-team blockers. That limited exposure to the drills demands a smart group. Wharton's a special case, since he doesn't even get that much work at tackle. All his time's spent mastering the transition back inside this season.
"It just shows that our communication has to be on point," Wharton said. "We practice hard together, everybody's in the meeting room paying attention, going over our assignments. That's always key, when you're doing those kinds of things. And everybody stepped up. That's shows a good sign of an offensive line."
They're also getting along, showing the kind of bond that hasn't always existed. While Hangartner talked in the post-game locker room about fitting in, Wharton and Kalil stood over a reporter's shoulder, playfully critiquing Hangartner's answers. So Hangartner proceeded to lavish over-the-top praise on them, while making fun of Kalil's late-game penalty for a snap snafu. "Just kidding Ryan, I love you brother," he tagged onto the end.
"I wasn't planning on playing this much; I've played more in the first four games than I was planning on playing all year," Hangartner said, laughing. "It's definitely not the way we plan it out. We don't want to have (tight end) Jeff King taking tackle sets.
"JB and I have been around a while, we know what our role is, we know we have to be ready on game day. Even Travelle having to hop out to left tackle. We just have a lot of flexibility it seems, and we need that."
On Sunday, Bridges was the last available lineman. They only keep seven active on game days (fairly standard league-wide), and to keep more would mean shorting another spot. Third tight end Gary Barnidge was active but only played special teams, but with as much as the Panthers have used two-tight-end sets this year, the offensive playbook would have been deeply abridged if they deactivated him and got one injury at the position.
It's largely cyclical, and perhaps they've had their concentration. It hasn't happened often that they've had to go to emergency measures, so it's unlikely they'd keep an eighth up.
"You have no idea what's going to happen during the game," Fox said. "If you get a barrage of injuries at one spot, anybody and everybody's in trouble as far as guys having reps and practicing there. You just try to do the best you can to be prepared, and hopefully they respond."
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