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Sloppy start, but Panthers not finished

Posted Sep 9, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. - For a while, it looked like the thunderstorm that extended halftime by 10 minutes and cleared the Raymond James Stadium stands would wash away the Panthers' first-half issues.

Lucky to be down just 13-0 at halftime, Carolina's defense opened the second half with a stop, and the offense followed immediately with a touchdown drive.

But alas, the sun never rose above the clouds from the Panthers' perspective in a disheartening 16-10 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"The first quarter, they were the rabbit, and we were the tortoise," Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said. "I'm very disappointed, but you can't jump ship or panic."

The season opener is always a big game, but it's also only one game. The Panthers must now take on three teams that made the playoffs last year, starting with the NFC South champion New Orleans Saints and followed by the Super Bowl champion New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium. But both of those teams are 0-1 as well.

"Sixteen teams are going to lose their first game," Smith said. "The Super Bowl champs lost, and we lost. So what does that mean? That means everybody has to get back to work."

The work will begin immediately with film study Monday, and some scenes will be a horror show.

Wide receiver Kealoha Pilares led the Panthers' typically potent rushing attack with 5 yards on one attempt. With running back Jonathan Stewart sidelined by an ankle injury, the rest of the team combined for 5 yards on 12 carries.

The special teams units were much better in coverage than they were for most of the preseason, but the Buccaneers blocked a punt.

For the defense, it was a mixed bag, but the good things the unit accomplished are a big part of the reason that Smith's teammates should heed his advice and not panic at this early juncture.

A year ago, Carolina's offense consistently kept the Panthers in games, while players on the defensive side readily admitted they often didn't do their share.

Sunday, the roles were reversed, and everything points to the offense being capable of reversing course and returning to its form of a year ago.

"I thought the defense did a tremendous job today, stopping a pretty good offense. We've really got to do a better job offensively," center Ryan Kalil said. "Some of the guys that we brought onboard did a tremendous job, and obviously having some of the heart-and-soul guys back – Thomas Davis and Jon Beason – made that defense better."

The defense, like the entire team, started slow, allowing an 80-yard touchdown drive on Tampa Bay's opening possession. On the Buccaneers following drive, the defense surrendered a 33-yard completion that set up a field goal and a 10-0 first-quarter deficit for the Panthers.

The next time the Buccaneers had the ball, they marched 90 yards down the field but couldn't pick up the last yard required for a touchdown. Beason and Davis combined for a smashmouth stop on a run play, and then Davis came up with an open-field stop on a play-action pass that so often succeeds on the doorstep of the goal line.

From there, the defense brought it at a level that it arguably never achieved at any point last season, even with its back against the wall. When Tampa Bay started a third consecutive time with excellent field position, several defensive players goaded the crowd into making more noise, brimming with confidence about the unit's ability to stop the Buccaneers.

Starting from Carolina's 42-yard line, Tampa Bay did manage a first down that allowed it to kick a crucial field goal for a 16-7 lead.

But in the big picture, the Panthers' defense getting its swagger back is a great sign for the future in the midst of a bad loss.

"The defense can be really good," Kalil said. "We've just got to do our part on offense."

If that happens – when that happens – the sun will shine again.