Panthers play close-to-complete game

CHARLOTTE - One day after a convincing victory at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Panthers' coaches found some areas of concern that they can use as teaching points in the week to come.

Even so, they came away impressed by how much their young team showed it already has learned in the 38-19 triumph.

"We're starting to get it. We're starting to understand," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said Monday. "We've had an opportunity as coaches to go over tape, and we feel pretty good about what we did.

"We also feel that we could have done some things better. We had opportunities that we left out on the football field, but we'll have an opportunity to make those up as we learn and get better as a football team."

On offense, the Panthers scored their most points in a game since a 41-9 victory over the New York Giants to close the 2009 regular season. On defense, Carolina allowed a season-low 78 rushing yards.

In addition, the Panthers were flagged for just two penalties – also a season low.

"Offensively, defensively and with the exception of the one punt return on special teams, we did some good things," Rivera said. "We thought we could do some things and make it tough on them, and that's exactly what happened as far as the defense was concerned. And the big thing was how our offense handled the first two series, going down and putting points on the board and giving us a chance to start fast."

The offense set the tone with touchdowns on each of its first two drives. Four plays – two runs and two passes – covered 19 or more yards during the hot start.

"When you can go out and your first two drives are touchdowns, you'd obviously love to start every game that way," offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. "I felt good about the plan going into the game, and the guys did a great job of executing all day long. Things didn't go perfectly in some spots where we didn't execute, but we've gotten better with being consistent. That's what we're trying to do."

While the offense set the tone, the defense made it stick. The Panthers entered the game ranked 28th in the NFL against the run and tied for last in rushing touchdowns allowed (15). They responded to the challenge, holding running back LeGarrette Blount – who came in off consecutive 100-yard games – to 19 yards on 11 carries.

"I think we've all seen him on TV hurdling defensive backs, so that's a step in the right direction for our defense in the run game," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "You see improvement against the run game and improvement with assignments. That's just a part of the process as a first-year staff putting a system in place.

"It's new for the players as well, and they're starting to understand how we want to play, how we want to do things. The pace of play is picking up as the learning curve flattens out."

The performance against the run was made even more impressive by the adversity the Panthers overcame up front, with starting defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain out of action before halftime. Fua didn't play at all, suffering a hamstring injury in pregame warm-ups, and McClain went out early with a knee injury.

Rivera said the severity of the injuries is yet to be determined, but the Panthers got a determined effort Sunday from their healthy linemen. Andre Neblett continued to contribute at defensive tackle, Frank Kearse did the same in his first extended action, and several defensive ends helped out on the inside.

"As a group, the defensive line played well. They played physical," McDermott said. "To have what happened to us – with Sione going down before the game and Terrell during the game – I thought they fought through that adverse situation. Frank and Andre stood up and did a nice job, and it's always nice to see young guys do that.

"Charles (Johnson) and Greg (Hardy) move well inside as well as any players in the league, I believe, and we moved Antwan (Applewhite) in there a little bit, and he helped out. It was a good team effort up front."

The Panthers know they'll need more of the same from all areas down the stretch. Beginning with Sunday's visit by the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers will face teams currently in position to make the playoffs in three of their final four games.

"I think we can have a run," Rivera said. "We're really going to get into the thick of it now with some real good football teams – Atlanta, Houston and then Tampa again (before closing it out at New Orleans).

"We most certainly do expect to build on this and gain momentum."

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