Sports

Off on the right foot

Carolina's Steve Smith scores on a 68-yard reception after leaving St. Louis' Tye Hill on the turf.
Carolina's Steve Smith scores on a 68-yard reception after leaving St. Louis' Tye Hill on the turf.

ST. LOUIS -- No one knew quite what to expect from the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

Even the ones who thought things were going to be good could have hardly expected things to work out as well as they did.

Their brand new offense started living up to its hype. Their defense once again looked like it could be a stalwart group.

The result was a 27-13 opening week win over St. Louis at the Edward Jones Dome, a win which will earn far higher scores for technical merit than artistic impression.

"I know it wasn't pretty," left guard Mike Wahle said. "It was a lot of guys playing hard."

It's hard to argue with the result, after an offseason re-tooling the offense and a preseason spent wondering when it would pay off. In fact, their first half resembled the preseason closely, with a sharp opening drive followed by the team sputtering and wondering where all the efficiency went. That's what happened in their exhibition games, with a clean performance in New York followed by three head-scratchers.

Midway through the third quarter, things started falling into place for the Panthers; with all the things they had been looking for suddenly arriving.

After talking all summer about wanting to create more turnovers, the defense complied, with safety Chris Harris jarring the ball away from Rams running back Steven Jackson and into the arms of defensive end Julius Peppers.

Then the offense responded two plays later, with Jake Delhomme hitting Steve Smith (almost in stride) for a 68-yard touchdown pass which sparked their 20-point second half.

"You guys print your expectations, what you dislike and like, and now obviously, it's going to be hard for y'all to write something bad, but I think you might manage," Smith said when asked about the offensive outburst. "I think offensively, we did exactly what I said we were going to do. We're going to come out here and give a little different taste. We did that."

The system, crafted by new offensive Jeff Davidson, deserves the high marks it will earn for its debut, as the Panthers had the Rams looking confused and disjointed throughout the second half.

The Panthers ran for 186 yards, 114 of them after the break. Delhomme passed for three touchdowns, two of them to third-option Drew Carter. In short, it was a complete effort for a team that had only shown glimpses,

"A lot's been made of it," coach John Fox said. "This is one week and it was good today."

"Yeah, it's basic football," right tackle Jordan Gross said. "If you run the ball well, the passing game's better and vice versa."

The reality is, what they're doing now is quite complicated, as Smith has alluded to several times. They're putting players in motion on most plays, lining guys up in unusual spots. They often ran out of a full-house backfield in the past, but now, they're starting with Smith lined up as a fullback before sending him moving.

In fact, Smith's the key to the whole operation.

As much as they want to spread the ball around, and have good balance, their first five plays were either passes to Smith or attempts to do so.

Delhomme was asked about Carter's first touchdown, and admitted the reason he was so open was because the Rams safety was cheating toward Smith, who was in the same vicinity.

"Obviously, Steve is the guy and that's the way it's going to be," Carter said. "I just try to come in and help the team as much as I can and today was the day."

There was a noticeable lift on the Panthers sidelines when the deep touchdown to Smith gave them a 14-13 lead, so much so that the margin seemed automatically bigger.

"When Steve makes a big play, it gets guys going," Delhomme said.

Guys on both sides of the ball.

As impressive as the Panthers offense was, their defense might have been better. The Rams offense was supposed to have been the polished group, and after their first possession, that seemed to be the case.

They answered the Panthers opening drive with a touchdown of their own, but that's when it stopped.

Jackson, who promised 2,500 yards from scrimmage this year, seemed to be on pace. He ran seven times for 31 yards on the first drive. He gained just 27 yards on 11 carries thereafter.

They also made Jackson fumble twice, after forcing just eight fumbles all of last season.

The Rams converted all five of their third downs on the opening drive, but just 2-of-11 afterward.

The Panthers only got one sack (from backup defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead), but they kept sufficient pressure on Rams quarterback Marc Bulger all afternoon. In fact, they even got pressure from journeyman Otis Grigsby, the 26-year-old reserve end playing his first NFL game. Grigsby was bearing down on Bulger when he chunked up a fourth-down pass late, ending their last realistic hope to stay in the game.

"I think we did a good job of holding them down today," Peppers said. "It's a very capable offense. On the first drive, they came down and scored on us. We settled down after that and started playing our defense.

"The whole team played with intensity, it was a high-intensity game. We wanted to come out and show everybody in this first game, and for the most part, I think we did a good job."

Following a summer in which the theme was change, they've already found themselves in a new spot.

After losing their last three regular season openers and forcing themselves to scramble, they're 1-0 now, alone in first place in the NFC South, a game ahead of the division after losses by New Orleans on Thursday and Atlanta and Tampa Bay Sunday.

"We wanted to come out fast, that is key," Delhomme said. "Last year, you start 0-2 and you have to win two games just to get back to .500 and that's hard to do in this league. We get to start 1-0 and we have a lot of young guys who need to learn how to win.

"And I think some of the young guys watched the older guys step up. Hopefully, we'll learn from it."

INSIDE

• Foster Panthers' all-time leading rusher • 6B

• Panthers notebook • 6B

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