Carolina Panthers

Panthers look to come together to right ship

New Orleans defenders Will Smith, bottom, and Charles Grant, top, combine to sack Carolina quarterback David Carr last week. Carr hurt his back on the play.
New Orleans defenders Will Smith, bottom, and Charles Grant, top, combine to sack Carolina quarterback David Carr last week. Carr hurt his back on the play.

PHOENIX -- The Carolina Panthers have been without Jake Delhomme the last two weeks, but when the announcement was made last week that he was done for the season, it became a little more real. There was a tangible psychological weight to the news, which took away from the emotional lift of last week's stand at New Orleans.

With it came the realization that adjustments were going to have to be made, and those will have to start today at Arizona.

"We've experienced that the last two weeks," coach John Fox said of the difference in replacing quarterbacks compared to other spots. "This is nothing new. I'll remind everybody that Jake hasn't played the last two weeks. There was always hope that he might be able to come back. That hope is gone now, and we're going to have to continue with the guys we have.

"Our guys understand everybody has to raise their level."

The primary responsibility falls on backup quarterback David Carr, who played perhaps his best game last week, when he couldn't feel anything after being shot up with painkillers in New Orleans.

Of course, he's going to need another such assist from the training staff today, as his back tightened up on the four-hour flight to Arizona and he was downgraded to questionable for today's game.

Provided he can play, the Panthers signed Carr for just this reason -- though they had a shorter Delhomme absence in mind, like last year's three-gamer -- and now he's going to get his chance to prove the 22-53 record he amassed in Houston wasn't his fault.

He's 1-1 here and admitted the game's changed now that he knows it's his. Carr's been upfront about how poorly he played against Tampa Bay, and has acknowledged he's going to have to be much better moving forward.

"We said before last week, it was all about us anyway," Carr said. "We said we would find out a lot about ourselves when we went into that game, both from just my perspective and everybody's. You challenge yourself. I played terrible against Tampa Bay, and we had a lot of guys admit that, that they could play better, too.

"We didn't play great last Sunday but we played together, we kind of fed off each other, and when guys are honest with themselves, and they point the fingers at themselves and they can get better, that's what happens. You go win games like that Sunday. If we keep doing that we'll be OK."

But Carr will need plenty of help, from a number of areas if they're to salvage the season.

Primarily, they'll need to lean on the running game, which has been good in the wins (averaging 34 carries for 149.7 yards) and dismal in the losses (20.5 carries for 82.5 yards).

At the same time, they're 22-2 when DeShaun Foster runs the ball 15 times or more in a game, and they were able to get away with one last week based on quantity more than quality (28 carries for 88 yards).

"It's tough, any time you lose a leader like that," Foster said. "Everybody's got to step up around David and go from there. We just have to continue to try to run the ball and help Carr out anyway we can.

"You could say that a little bit (that there's more pressure), but Carr's still a good quarterback. We're just going to stick with our same game plan, establish the run, run hard and keep going. That makes it easier on the quarterback."

There's also even more of an onus than normal to keep the quarterback on his feet, given the sore back that kept Carr off the practice field most of the week. Not all of the 249 sacks he absorbed in Houston were the fault of the offensive line, as he shows a tendency to hang onto the ball too long.

But with his physical condition, the reality is they're one slip-up in pass protection away from Vinny Testaverde or Matt Moore.

"You always think that," left tackle Travelle Wharton said. "You don't want any of your quarterbacks to get hurt, be in a position where you're thin at that position.

"It's coming out here, playing better. If you're playing good before, play that much better. Step your game up, so we can give our other QBs time to read, set up in the pocket and be comfortable. Or run the ball, so they can hit the hole. For us, it's taking on whatever's called and making it work."

More than anything, the Panthers have to continue their upward trend of defensive stands.

They still aren't getting much production from their front four -- defensive end Julius Peppers still doesn't have a sack, though he blocked a field goal last week -- but the rest of the stop-side seems to be coming together.

Rookie Jon Beason played well in his debut in the middle last week, and coupled with the improved play of linebacker Thomas Davis and safety Chris Harris, the Panthers are beginning to show life.

They got their first two interceptions of the year, and there's a little more bounce to their step in practice these days.

"I always feel like the defense needs to step up, no matter who's at quarterback," Harris said. "Whether Jake's at quarterback, Matt's at quarterback, Vinny, it doesn't matter.

"The defense needs to step up and not give up 20, 24, or 30 points a game. We need to be holding people to 10, 13 points a game. We've always felt that day, since day one."

It's just beginning to show more now, and now's exactly the time it has to.

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