Carolina Panthers

Firing on all cylinders

CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers, in a 30-10 win on Sunday, were able to break out of their offensive shell, making Denver pay for its decision to focus on stopping the run.

And even though the Panthers passing game looked better than it had in months, you can tell coach John Fox would rather not have to lean on it so heavily.

"There's a lot of working parts to the passing game; That's why I like to do it so much," Fox said Monday, his sarcasm easy to detect. "You have to protect. You have to get open. Then you've got to put it in the hoop -- in other words, you've got to complete the pass.

"So there's a lot of working parts, and for it to operate correctly, you have to do those things, and we're doing better now than we were six weeks ago, which is kind of what you want."

On the surface, the way they torched Denver didn't look as convincing as it was. The 253 passing yards understates how easily quarterback Jake Delhomme was able to find receivers downfield.

Delhomme said they were surprised when Denver used a four-linebacker set to open the game, essentially using Wesley Woodyard as a safety (former Panther Marquand Manuel, the Broncos' starting strong safety, would spend most of his day near the line of scrimmage as well). That left one free safety high to cover deep balls, and forced their corners into single coverage.

With Steve Smith, the Panthers generally like that. Smith didn't disappoint, with nine catches for 165 yards and a touchdown -- though it could have been far more if they hadn't taken their foot off the gas late.

"It's something we haven't seen on film, we hadn't prepared for," Delhomme said of the unusual personnel grouping.

"I thought (offensive coordinator) Jeff Davidson and Mike (McCoy, the passing game coordinator) did a great job and we went hurry up, into our red-ball mode. We liked our matchup when we went into that. We were able to move down the field, which was good. Things happen. You don't know what teams put in during the week, but that's part of it.

"To me, that goes back to coaching. Don't panic. Base rules, this is where we need to go, and it worked. We see it against our defense a lot in training camp too. That's a big plus. We see exotic looks from our defense. You have to go back to basics with some of those things, and we did that."

Mostly, it showed future opponents that simply stacking the line of scrimmage to hold the potent running game in check is not enough.

Even Muhsin Muhammad (four catches for 70 yards) was making plays in the passing game after weeks of not doing much but block.

"You play to your strengths," Muhammad said. "Last week (against Tampa Bay), we threw the ball when we needed to. We did a great job of throwing the ball when we needed to throw the ball. We made some plays in the passing game. Smitty went over a hundred yards. I caught every ball that was thrown to me. Jake was efficient in throwing the football.

"This week, there was a lot of man-to-man coverage. A lot of single safety. A lot of opportunities in the passing game."

The Panthers responded by going no-huddle, and catching the Broncos in matchups they didn't want (like linebackers covering Smith when he'd go into motion).

And since he's in charge of the game plans, Fox wasn't going to admit surprise at the Broncos' tactics, but said the key was getting the passing game in tune again. He likened it to the strategy Oakland employed, but that was the day Delhomme threw mostly to the Raiders, and they were fortunate to get by with a win.

"The bottom line is we've had teams do that to us over the last six weeks," Fox said. "And the difference is, one of the challenges we made a while back was that we had to make plays in the passing game, and what you saw yesterday was not way different than what you saw (five) weeks ago against Oakland.

"The difference is our passing game has improved since then. That's something that it needed to do."

Getting Muhammad open was a key, since he had plateaued after a good start. And the Panthers are still getting nothing from their third wideout, largely because they don't try to send much that way.

But making those plays against the Broncos might have a carryover effect in the final games, as teams may be dissuaded from tricking up their defenses to stop one particular aspect of the Panthers offense.

"You really have no control what they do," Fox said when asked if he anticipated it in the future. "You just need to focus on what you do, and that's the way we'll continue."

Related stories from Rock Hill Herald