Carolina Panthers

Regardless, the Panthers still have to play

CHARLOTTE -- There might not be much hope left, but there are eight games.

And even though the Carolina Panthers are getting nothing whatsoever from their offense, they've still got to play.

That means rather than moaning about David Carr or praying for Vinny Testaverde or holding their breath if it's Matt Moore, the Panthers have to put the yoke for the second half elsewhere.

You can't make it much simpler, kids. If they want to be anything other than 4-12, the defense is going to have to play better, because that's the only shot they've got.

The Panthers have been better there since coach John Fox made his presence felt after the Tampa Bay game, taking a more hands-on approach to his side of the ball, stepping into meetings, simplifying the scheme, pumping guys up.

Since then, they've played 14 good quarters out of 16, and the two came when Sisyphus just wasn't able to roll the rock up the hill anymore against Indianapolis -- since there was an avalanche behind it.

And after what we just witnessed in Tennessee, there's no question the defense just has to be better.

They did more than enough to get a win there, creating three turnovers (the fourth was on special teams), and holding the near-wishbone Titans to 13 at the half. It should have been enough, if they could have made a single play in the passing game. They ran just fine, plenty to have kept things afloat, but that game died on the vine waiting for the passing game to put a drop on it.

Good defense has to become better. Better's got to become great. The realistic end -- they might have to start shutting other teams out, and scoring the points themselves since the passing came can't.

The Panthers have been in this before.

In 2002, when the quarterback was Rodney Peete, the running back was no one you remember and Steve Smith wasn't yet Steve Smith, they had to win with defense.

In 2004, when Jake Delhomme was around but Smith wasn't, the running back was a weekly mystery, they had to win with defense.

That's where it's going to have to happen now.

In those years, they had playmakers running from sideline to sideline, with Mark Fields providing the spark, Mike Minter churning it into a fire and Julius Peppers turning to smoke when blockers tried to lay hands on him.

There are elements of two of those things now.

Safety Chris Harris has been an excellent pickup, making more plays in two months than Minter did the last few years. He plays with an edge, and after giving up plays early, he's started balancing the ledger.

Linebacker Jon Beason's been nothing short of a revelation, more than subbing in as a rookie, he's becoming an institution. Not since Fields have they had a guy you'd watch knowing something was about to happen, but Beason's getting there quickly.

Thomas Davis is finally looking like a first-round pick instead of a safety lost in translation. And Na'il Diggs might be one of the better bargains on the roster, making plays on the weakside for less than a quarter of what St. Louis is paying Will Witherspoon.

And as much as they've been criticized locally, their cornerbacks are actually playing well, with scouts league-wide admiring the work of Ken Lucas and marveling at the physical gifts of Chris Gamble. Richard Marshall's another who plays with a lean, and the fact he's not starting speaks to the talent above him on the chart, not an oversight on the coach's part.

The old Panthers model used to be that the front four would take care of things. That's not happening, and there's no real reason to expect it to change.

But they've got guys in their back seven who can change games, take the ball away and do something with it. The challenge is to increase the pace.

The Panthers have created 12 turnovers the last four games, and the number's going to have to go up. They're not only going to have to give the offense shorter fields, they're going to have to give them no field, scoring it themselves a time or two.

It's a tough call to make, a lot to ask of a group that's playing without one captain altogether and another that's simply not the same guy they've come to know.

But that's what it's come down to. They have to be dominant over there, because they're impotent when they have the ball.

The defense has to win games, period.

And all there really is on the line is a season, jobs, and careers.

Lots of luck, gentlemen. You're not getting any help.

It's all on you.

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