The Carolina Panthers opened up the 2003 season with an exciting come from behind win, beating the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-23. Despite some encouraging play, there is still much room for improvement. Although any type victory is important in a league as tough as the NFL, the team must make several improvements if they wish to compete for a playoff berth.
Offensive Line – This unit, for the most part, played very well on Sunday. Jordan Gross looked solid in his first start and Todd Steussie kept All-Pro Hugh Douglas from making too many big plays. Both were instrumental in giving Jake Delhomme plenty of time to find his receivers. Although they did give up four sacks (three of which can be partially attributed to Rodney Peete's indecision), the pass protection was there when it needed to be. Run-blocking was exceptional and the line opened up some great holes for Stephen Davis.
Stephen Davis – Determined to prove some of his critics wrong, Davis carried the ball 21 times for 109 yards. While he certainly filled the role of a workhorse back, his impressive yard per carry average of 5.2 was a nice surprise. He also showed great determination when finishing runs, which helped to convert several important third downs.
Ricky Proehl – The Panthers got exactly what they expected when they signed Proehl in the off-season. The veteran player was quiet for most of the game before making the game-winning touchdown reception in the final minute. Look for Proehl to continue making clutch plays for the rest of the season.
Special Teams – This was the key to the game and a big part of the Panthers' comeback. Rod Smart made big play after big play, including a huge 4th quarter punt block that led to a safety. He showed excellent burst and vision on kickoff returns, averaging nearly 30 yards on each. Steve Smith made an appearance on the return team and helped give Carolina fantastic field position late in the game. Special teams came up big once again by blocking Seth Marler's potentially game-winning kick and preserving the victory. Todd Sauerbrun was very consistent with his punts (despite the coverage teams botching an incredible kick that rolled inside the five) and John Kasay seemed back to his old self with a strong 49-yard field goal.
Team resilience – Down 17-0 in the third quarter, it would've been easy for the Panthers to revert to their old form and call it a day. However, the team seemed to rally around Delhomme and everyone started contributing. The defense stiffened and made several big stops to get the ball back to the offense. Special teams were incredible. To pull out the comeback win in the final minutes was very impressive and gives the team a reference point if they're ever in the same situation.
Mike Rucker – 2.5 sacks is a great way to start the season, and Rucker seems poised to one-up his great 2002 performance. Although fellow defensive end Julius Peppers gets most of the accolades (and rightfully so), Rucker is arguably a more complete player and will hopefully be recognized as one of the league's best soon.
Jake Delhomme – Expected to challenge for the starting spot since he was signed, Delhomme may have come into his own with his performance against the Jaguars. Although he did make some costly mistakes, including an awful interception late in the fourth quarter, Delhomme gave the team life and a spark that seemed to be missing with Peete. His three touchdown passes were very impressive and he showed poise in leading the comeback. Hopefully he can build on this performance and take control of the team.
Pass defense – Mark Brunell had his way with the Panthers' defense for most of the day, throwing for over 270 yards. The most troubling stat, however, was the precision in which he took the secondary apart – he completed 85% of his passes. For any opposing quarterback to complete such a high percentage is just unacceptable, and the defense can't afford to have that happen when facing some of the league's more accomplished field generals. Even more disappointing was the fact that the Jaguars' best receiver, All-Pro Jimmy Smith, did not play due to a suspension. Apparently, Jacksonville didn't need Smith on Sunday thanks to Jermaine Lewis and Matthew Hachette, career backups who both scored touchdowns. In a division filled with the likes of Keyshawn Johnson, Joe Horn and Peerless Price, the secondary must either correct their mistakes quickly or become frequent highlight victims.
Slow start – Rodney Peete looked rusty and unsure for most of the first half, which led to his eventual benching. The rest of the offense wasn't exactly impressive either and struggled to make any type of positive play. The defense was lethargic and passive, seemingly content to let the Jaguars dictate the pace of the game. All of this contributed to the 17 point deficit, a deep hole to come out of when battling in the NFL. Carolina will be playing much more talented teams in the future and won't have the luxury of any more stumbles out of the gate.
Terry Cousin – Although the terrible pass defense had been mentioned before, Cousin deserves mention for his repeated trouble covering the Jacksonville wide receivers. Whether in zone or man coverage, Cousin struggled against Hatchette and Lewis. On several occasions he was beat deep, including a 65-yard touchdown that nearly cost the team the win. Cousin must improve, or else forfeit his starting spot.
Rodney Peete – The journeyman Peete had been awarded the starting nod for the second year in a row, but failed to deliver in his first half of action. Peete looked uncertain and startled on most plays, something one would expect from a younger player. Coach Fox has to be disappointed with Peete's uninspired play and might be inclined to demote him after Delhomme's impressive performance. Obviously the quarterback with the least upside, Peete will have to show a lot of improvement in practice this week.