Carolina Panthers

No more O-line woes for Panthers

CHARLOTTE -- The way he said it, moreso than the words he said, said it all.

Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross was hanging out in the media room for a moment last week, updating reporters on his expected return from a concussion, when the discussion turned to the team's reserves, which have played such a key role. Backup tackles Frank Omiyale and Jeremy Bridges started last week's romp against Kansas City, and Geoff Hangartner figures to play center today in place of the injured Ryan Kalil -- his latest relief appearance.

"It's a great feeling we have right now with depth," Gross said. "You guys have seen our O-lines in the past, ..."

The Panthers' starting lines have been bad at times in the not-to-distant past (Rich Tylski, Doug Brzezinski, Tutan Reyes, and Evan Mathis to name a few), but some of their backups have been downright ridiculous.

Remember the Dave Kadela era, the guy who hung around for years because assistant coach Mike Maser trusted him, but every time he was needed, they went outside for help? Don't forget one of the guys who replaced him, Todd Fordham, who split time with Matt Willig in 2004 as a starting tackle. Then there was narrow-in-the-seat tackle Rashad Butler, and short-legged center Will Montgomery.

"We have had good groups in the past, but we've never had this many quality players," Gross said. "Hangartner, J.B. and Frank, those are three guys that could be starting on another team. That was a perfect example of it. That was our best game offensively around here in a long time, and two of the starters weren't even in.

"Nothing against people we have had here, but we are lucky right now to have the depth that we do."

Actually, depth isn't a luxury, it's a necessity this year.

Hangartner replacing Kalil today would make it the fourth different starting combination in six games. They've only finished a game with the five who started twice, and those were the two games Hangartner replaced the injured Travelle Wharton at left guard.

The starting five hasn't had much of a chance to work together.

Gross, Wharton, Kalil, Keydrick Vincent and Jeff Otah have only worked together in parts of two games, into the second quarter against San Diego and the first against Atlanta.

That group has taken just 39 of the team's 312 offensive snaps (12.5 percent), and played just 18 minutes and 40 seconds as a unit (of the team's 160:48, 11.6 percent).

"It's really weird," Gross said. "We talk a lot about '03 and that was one of the biggest deals -- we had the same group every game. I do think those are our best five, the starters. But I don't think it's very far behind for the other three I mentioned.

"But if we can get everyone out there working together, the best is yet to come."

• QUITE A STREAK: Those backups were able to do something rare.

Last week marked the second straight without allowing a sack. As innocuous as that sounds, it's the first time it's happened for the Panthers since 2003, when they blanked Atlanta on Sept. 28 and followed it by shutting out New Orleans on Oct. 5.

They also did the back-to-back in Ohio in 2002, shutting out Cleveland and Cincinnati late in the year in wins.

Since coach John Fox took over in 2002, the Panthers have held 22 opponents without a sack in 101 games.

• LOW BLOW, LOW PROFILE: Not that he's a big talker anyway, but defensive end Tyler Brayton was noticeably absent from the locker room last week when the media's allowed in. Figures, as he was going to be asked about Tampa Bay tight end Jerramy Stevens, and he wanted no part of it.

Though he's played solidly for the Panthers, and was once a first-round pick, one of the defining moments of Brayton's career came in 2006 when he kneed Stevens in the groin during a Monday Night Football game between Oakland and Seattle.

"I guess I'll address this one time and one time only with you guys; how far in the past is that? Two or three years?" he said back in June. "It was just one of those things where football is an emotional game, and you can't let your emotions get the best of you. But they did on that night. Things got out of hand.

"For that, I apologize. And I've apologized before. I'm just moving forward, learning from that experience and keeping my emotions in check."

The mild-mannered Brayton seemed genuinely embarrassed by the whole deal (he was ejected and fined $25,000).

• POSSIBLE ADVANTAGE: New Orleans is slowly getting healthy again, but the Saints will fly to Charlotte next weekend with more on their minds than the Panthers.

The Saints play San Diego the following week in London. So rather than go home to collect their things, they've leaving straight from Charlotte after the game for their transatlantic flight.

It's quite a trip to pack for.

• NEW PUNT RETURNER? Luckily, Ken Lucas was able to laugh at himself last week.

The Panthers cornerback chuckled recalling his interception of a Damon Huard pass last week, a high-arcing number that looked more like a punt than anything intended from scrimmage.

But the true comedy was in Lucas' 43-yard return. It looked good for a moment, and he tried to set up some blocks before collapsing.

"I wish I could have just fair caught it," he said. "I was so tired when I caught that ball. I was surprised I even made it that far down the field. Those guys, you can see they were blocking really well. I needed like one more block to try take it to the house. But like I said, I would have tackled myself if no one was there."

• COMING AND GOING: There's a litany of stats you can throw out there to underline how well the Panthers' defense has played through five games.

Because of the way the Panthers' run defense is playing, they're forcing passing downs early. They give up 4.06 yards per first-down plays by opponents, fourth-fewest in the league. They're also fourth in third-down efficiency (30.8) and third in completion percentage allowed (55.3), meaning they're getting off the field when placed in that spot.

They're also first in the league in red-zone defense, allowing just two touchdowns this season from inside their own 20-yard line. Of course, more impressive is that they've allowed just nine trips there in five games.