Improvement must come to pass

CHARLOTTE – Steve Smith had as good a vantage point as anyone, though certainly not the view that he or the Panthers want him to have come the regular season.

Watching Saturday's preseason game against the New York Jets from the sideline as he continues to recover from a broken arm, Smith could clearly see the struggles endured by the Panthers' passing game.

"Obviously we've got to connect," Smith said after Carolina's quarterbacks completed 15-of-39 passes for 129 yards in a 9-3 loss. "We've played teams in the first two preseason games that come in and are very creative. They want to be disruptive and throw the timing off between the receiver and the quarterback.

"They accomplished that. It was evident, from the ones to the threes. They accomplished their goals, and we've got to do a better job of adjusting and making plays."

The return of Smith, a four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, certainly will help the cause, and Smith fully participated in practice for the first time Monday.

The Panthers, however, understand they need to be better regardless of when Smith surfaces.

Through two preseason games, Carolina ranks last in the NFL in passer rating (37.4), passing yards per game (112.0) and completion percentage (41.8) – even though they rank third in attempts per game (39.5).

"Steve makes such a difference. That guy flies around, and the defense has to keep one eye on him at all times," quarterback Matt Moore said. "But we've still got to make plays regardless of who's out there.

"Guys have to make plays and execute and not miss a beat because injuries occur, and maybe that's a possibility during the season, though I hope not. My point is, everybody has to be ready and capable of making plays."

Still, injuries are a factor in the slow start.

Smith is the undisputed MVP of the passing game. Last season, he caught seven of the nine touchdown passes that went to wide receivers; this season, he'll enter the regular season with 574 receptions while the other wide receivers on the roster total 48.

In addition, right tackle Jeff Otah remains out of action as he recovers from knee surgery, an absence that hurts an offensive line that has allowed 11 sacks through two games. Otah himself makes a difference, and his absence makes it more difficult for the Panthers to effectively figure out their best plan of attack at right guard.

Finally, running back Jonathan Stewart is yet to play in a preseason game, making it more difficult for the Panthers to force defenses to key on the running game without running DeAngelo Williams into the ground.

"Once we establish our identity more," Moore said, "things will flow more smoothly."

Another factor is the preparedness level of the offense for the defense. While the Panthers have spent countless practices working on their system, they spent no significant practice time working specifically on the Jets, a common approach in the preseason.

"It is tough," quarterback Jimmy Clausen said. "In the preseason, you don't really gameplan too much, so you've got to just go in and watch film on your own and with our quarterbacks and the coaches, just trying to do your own gameplanning as much as you can.

"To be honest, that's the hard part about the preseason."
It isn't clear whether Smith will be in action for Saturday night's visit by the Tennessee Titans. Both Smith and head coach John Fox have said the regular season opener is the focus.

It is clear, however, that the Panthers need to show some progress against the Titans, when the starters typically play three quarters.

Carolina had just one touchdown pass in the winless preseason of 2009, and it seemed to carry over to the regular season, when the Panthers ranked in the bottom fourth of the league in nearly every major passing category.

This preseason, the Panthers need some positive feelings to carry over into the regular season when it comes to pass.

"Saturday night will tell if we've really responded to what happened Saturday," Moore said. "We want to go out and play well and execute. It is a preseason game, but we want to go out and produce.

"That's absolutely our goal."

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