Carolina Panthers

Panthers to get a different kind of challenge Sunday

Derrick Ward rushed for 215 of the Giants' 301 yards Sunday in the team's overtime win against the Panthers.
Derrick Ward rushed for 215 of the Giants' 301 yards Sunday in the team's overtime win against the Panthers.

CHARLOTTE -- There is good news for the Carolina Panthers' run defense after it was napalmed for 301 yards in an overtime loss in New York.

The good news is, next week's opponent isn't that interested in or capable of doing the same thing.

Since New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is only 402 passing yards away from breaking Dan Marino's single-season yardage record (5,084 in 1984), the Saints won't be as inclined to try to jackhammer at the Panthers the way the Giants did.

"That's unacceptable for any team in the NFL," Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas said of the rushing total by the Giants. "But it's just one game; we have a chance to redeem ourselves next week against New Orleans. Stopping the run is a total team effort, all 11 guys. We have to fix that.

"Other people are going to try to do that, too, so we've got to put that fire out before it gets any bigger."

That's a challenge for what lies ahead -- the playoffs -- moreso than the present week.

Since the Saints aren't built to bang, the Panthers don't have to worry about taking the kind of abuse they received Sunday night.

Carolina knew what it was in for, playing without nose tackle Maake Kemoeatu the same week Giants hammer Brandon Jacobs returned. But while Jacobs had a great night on his own -- 87 yards and three touchdowns -- it was the smaller, quicker Derrick Ward who scalded the Panthers. Ward piled up 88 of his 215 yards in overtime, leaving the Panthers grasping at air.

That led to a sense of frustration among the team, because it seemed they had gotten their run defense straightened out.

They suffered through November, giving up 138.8 rushing yards per game against Oakland, Detroit, Atlanta and Green Bay. But then they tightened up against Tampa Bay and Denver, seeming to have fixed the problems.

But then Kemoeatu got hurt, they realized there was no replacing him, and other holes began springing up left and right.

The Panthers' first move was to put starter Damione Lewis in the nose tackle spot, forcing him to eat the double-teams usually consumed by a guy who has at least 40 pounds on him. Lewis isn't suited for the job, but he did it.

"When you've got a big guy like that, you always miss him," a weary Lewis said after the game. "I missed him. Sitting down there taking all those double-teams on the nose, so I really missed him."

Then Carolina's corps of fill-ins failed to fill in the blanks. Between Darwin Walker, Gary Gibson (playing with a large cast on his left hand) and just-promoted Nick Hayden, the Panthers were unable to sustain any control of their gaps inside, and the Giants repeatedly took advantage.

Lewis said one play in particular gave the Panthers fits -- the halfback draw (sometimes with the tight end in motion leading him across). Too often, without Kemoeatu taking up blockers, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis were occupied and unable to get to the ballcarrier.

"We had a lot of problems with it," Lewis said. "It really got us off-balance and we really couldn't get it stopped today. I just really don't understand why we couldn't, but we just couldn't get it stopped today."

Fox termed the problems "correctable," and tried to deflect the blame away from the personnel shortages.

"We didn't execute -- in particular on what we call sub-runs (those draws) -- as well as we could have," Fox said. "We made No. 34 (Ward) look pretty good."

Others pointed to the general breakdowns.

Run defense is a collective effort, defined by players being in assigned spots. Between Kemoeatu's absence, the inexperienced players in new spots, and Beason still looking sluggish from a midweek stomach bug, the Panthers had problems aplenty.

"Just didn't play well," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "I can't sit here and dissect every play for you and tell you what happened on every play or what went wrong exactly. I know we didn't play well at all up front, and that's where most of the blame's going to rest. Even without seeing the tape, I can tell you that.

"Any time a team rushes for 300 yards, that's the D-line's fault. Looking for somewhere to place the blame at on this game? Look right here. Right around here. That's on us. We've got to get that corrected and be better next week."

At that point, someone suggested to Peppers that being shorthanded didn't help, but he brushed aside that notion.

"We have guys," he said. "Guys get hurt, we have guys that step in. That's what we've got to have. We had guys do that, we've just got to play better.

"It's one of those things we've got to get it fixed before it ends up ending the season."

Again, the Saints aren't so much of a challenge in that area as other teams will be. But those future games are the ones where fixing it is most important. The Panthers hope to have Kemoeatu back to full strength by the playoffs, which will have a ripple effect of putting others back in their normal roles.

But until they stop someone who's interested in running, they know this cloud will hang over them.

"Disappointment comes to mind before pain," Beason said, describing the feeling. "You go out and you play hard and you get beat, it hurts. You go out and play hard but you know you made a lot of mistakes, you're just disappointed in yourself. We realized the stage we were on, what we're playing for. They fought, they never went away. We just gave them plays. That's what's disappointing, we gave it to them. If they beat you or blocked everybody or outhustled, that's one thing, but we gave them plays.

"As a linebacker, that's what you live for. You're supposed to make tackles. So for some guy to run for what, 200 and some, ... that's just inexcusable. It's hard to hold your head up when you do that."

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