John Fox is not a happy camper. How can a head coach be happy when he sees his team not only lose a game but to lose it in the fashion in which the Panthers lost to the Chicago Bears Sunday night in Chicago? Not only did the Panthers score just three points (after a late fourth quarter John Kasay field goal), but the Panthers showed once again the weakness of both their rushing attack and the holes in their offensive line.
After everything is said and done and you go back to review the film of the game, who do you blame for the catastrophe that took place? Even more important, how do you fix the problem (s).
The first problem the Panthers have needed to address all season is the lack of a rushing attack that has all but become the trademark of a John Fox football team. Stephen Davis , despite his 12 touchdowns, is just barely averaging 3.0 yards per carry, according to statistics on nfl.com. The once powerful running back has looked lethargic at times and many are beginning to question why Davis continues to get the starting nod over running back DeShaun Foster. Foster is averaging 3.7 yards per carry and has the ability to break away for a huge gain at any moment. Furthermore, Foster has proven useful out of the backfield as a receiver and is currently second on the team in receiving yards with 255 yards. During the loss at Chicago, Foster averaged over 4 yards per carry against a fierce defensive Bears unit. Developing a consistent running attack will be paramount for the Panthers entering the home stretch of the season.
The second problem is the lack of consistent offensive line play by the Panthers. The bucket of cold water was dashed on both the Panthers and their rivals when the Panthers line allowed quarterback Jake Delhomme to be sacked eight times. One of the biggest concerns that stand out on the Panthers offensive line is left tackle Travelle Wharton . Wharton, who was moved from left guard to left tackle when the Panthers acquired guard/tackle Matt Wahle from free agency, personally allowed Jake to be sacked for at least three of those times, along with pass rushes that either ended up as interceptions or fumbles. At times Wharton looked like a frozen statue out on the field as the defender rushed by him time after time after time to get to Jake. There were concerns about how Travelle would play at the left tackle position early on in the season and up until the Bears game, he was playing adequately. But for the sake of the Panthers quarterback, he better hope that this game was an aberration and not a foreshadowing of the second coming of former Carolina Panther Todd Steussie . Steussie, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers , was given the nickname of "turnstile" by many of his critics because of the many times he was beaten by a defender. The success of the Panthers passing attack and rushing attack start with the offensive line doing their job. Without that consistency up front, it's going to make for a long season for the Panthers offense.
Finally, the third problem that came out of the Panthers/Bears game was the play of quarterback Jake Delhomme. Delhomme didn't help his cause when he threw two interceptions to the Bears in the first half, setting the Bears up with great field position. "We spotted them 10 points right out of the blocks with two turnovers," said Panthers head coach John Fox. "When you're playing on the road against a tough team you can't do that." Delhomme wasn't really able to set his throws all day and on many occasions was either throwing side arm or off his back foot to avoid a Bears pass rusher. Coming into the Bears game, Jake had thrown 15 touchdowns and had 10 interceptions. Furthermore, he had only been sacked 12 times during the season. But Jake has also been known to lose focus from time to time and throw interceptions that shouldn't happen under normal circumstances. Despite the poor play of the quarterback, the question begs to be asked: When a team sacks a quarterback eight times in one game and completely knocks the offense off their game plan - where were the adjustments?
Earlier this season, the Panthers were facing teams that utilized a three step drops and quick slant plays to help their quarterback be able to release the ball faster and avoid the Panthers pass rush. However, during the game against the Bears, not once did Jake have a three step drop play set up or even work out of the shotgun formation to help give him some more time to make better throws to receivers. "Certainly they are good; there's no doubt," Delhomme said. "We put ourselves in a hole early. I had a couple picks early on, we went down 10-0. We just never got anything going." It would be easy to point to the players for blame but the coaching staff may need to be held responsible as well. There were several third and long plays in which the Panthers would run a draw play up the middle to put themselves in better punting position rather than attempt to pass anything down field.
The Panthers now have a record of 7-3 and share the division lead with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The concern for the Panthers in the upcoming weeks shouldn't be their opponents but rather addressing the issues that have plagued their offensive unit all season. The Panther ability or inability to adjust to these problems may very determine how strong they finish down the home stretch.