Game Analysis: Carolina at Indianapolis

Playing the Colts was the latest measuring stick for the upstart Panthers, a battle of unbeatens and a fierce contest against another Super Bowl hopeful in their own stadium. This would be a telling game in how far John Fox had come from last season to now. For most intents and purposes, the Panthers proved they are one of the league's best teams and cannot be ignored any longer. 

Playing the Colts was the latest measuring stick for the upstart Panthers, a battle of unbeatens and a fierce contest against another Super Bowl hopeful in their own stadium.  This would be a telling game in how far John Fox had come from last season to now.  For most intents and purposes, the Panthers proved they are one of the league's best teams and cannot be ignored any longer. 

Positives

DeShaun Foster ­– With Stephen Davis injured and out for most of the fourth quarter and all of overtime, it was imperative that the young Foster step up and make some big plays.  He did just that, running for 85 yards on 16 carries and catching for an additional 54 yards on receptions.  Foster has had high expectations ever since being the team's 2002 second round draft pick.  He has been slow in recovering from a preseason knee injury a year ago, but displayed his old college form against Indianapolis.  His quick cuts and determined style could not have come at a better time.  The team had been slowly working Foster back into duty, rushing him sparingly in the first four games of the season.  They had the luxury of taking their time, mostly due to Davis' consistent running.  With Davis nursing a bruised forearm injury in the second half, the coaching staff could not wait on Foster any longer. 

Foster showed all of his talents on arguably the play of the game, a 3rd and 3 in overtime inside Colts' territory.  After taking the pitch from Delhomme he slid to the right, then bounced the play out and avoided two Colt defenders.  Still at least two yards shy of the marker and seemingly cornered by three more Indy defenders, Foster made a hard cut and accelerated right past them and towards a first down.  A few more broken tackles later, Foster showed remarkable balance by staying on his feet after slipping past another fallen Colt.  Finally, his own momentum seemed to trip Foster up and he ended the play a dozen yards from where he started.  A few more runs and the Panthers finished the overtime's only drive with the game-winning kick.  Hopefully Foster gained confidence in knowing he can carry the team when asked upon and will become a bigger part of the offense in the future.

Steve Smith ­– Smith had been quiet in recent weeks, save for his public outcries over his unresolved contract situation.  All that aside, Smith certainly made a strong case for himself on Sunday.  He showed his versatility by setting up a field goal on a 36-yard punt return.  He showed he can make plays from the wide receiver position, catching a 52-yard touchdown over a fallen Nick Harper to go ahead 17-13 in the third quarter.  Total, Smith accounted for 173 yards and a touchdown.  If he can continue to produce like that on a consistent basis, Panthers' management should have no problem awarding Smith his desired extension.

Special Teams John Kasay had another magnificent game, hitting on three attempts that included the game-winner.  Under pressure, Kasay has made big kick after big kick this season.  One has to wonder what kind of effect a healthy Kasay would've had on the Panthers' record from last year, considering all the close games they were on the short end of.  Rod Smart provided adequate field position on kickoff returns, but his overtime fumble could have been incredibly costly.  Instead, the hero of the return game was Steve Smith, who continually made big punt returns and set up points.  Sauerbrun did very well punting, averaging 48 yards a kick and dropping three punts inside the Indianapolis' 20-yard line.  The coverage teams were not spectacular but effective; the Colts' Brad Pyatt looked on his way to several big returns before being brought down at the last second by a scrappy defender.

Ricky Manning Jr. ­– The UCLA rookie had his tallest task of the season on Sunday when he was assigned to cover Marvin Harrison for most of the second half.  The 5-8 Manning gave up plenty of size and speed to Harrison, not to mention NFL experience.  The coaches believed Manning was the best fit to cover one of the league's best receivers, mostly due to his athleticism and playmaking ability.  He showed both on a brilliant second half interception, fighting past blockers to snag a wide receiver screen that was just a little behind Harrison.  The turnover was a huge boost for the team and stopped the Colts from gaining any kind of offensive rhythm.  Harrison still finished with 8 catches for 119 yards, but Manning more than held his own.  The feisty rookie has been a defensive sparkplug ever since the preseason and gains more confidence in himself and from the coaching staff every week.     

Dan Morgan ­– Sure, Will Witherspoon made more tackles and other defenders made more plays against the Colts, but it was a positive just to see Morgan back on the field.  A player that has battled injuries seemingly from the day he was drafted, Morgan finished with six tackles, four assists and a fumble recovery.  Most importantly, he showed some of his past aggressiveness and attacked the ball on every play.  He was usually a key figure in shutting down the Colts on third down conversions, a big part of the Panthers' semi-comeback.  Morgan has all the talent to be a star in the NFL; here's hoping he can stay on the field long enough for both the team and himself to enjoy it.

Late game fortitude by the offense ­– Smart's fumble non-withstanding, the offense was cool and efficient during their overtime series.  Delhomme made a few big throws while being flushed out of the pocket, and as mentioned before, Foster ran with unequaled determination and skill.  Late in the game, it seemed the Indy defense made the costly mistakes (roughing the passer, defensive holding on third down, poor tackling) while the Panthers calmly took control of the game and did what they needed to win.  Maybe they can transfer that attitude over to the defense when it comes down to late game drives.

Negatives

Todd Steussie ­– The veteran tackle had more than his share of trouble containing the explosive Dwight Freeney for most of the first half, giving up two sacks and a forced fumble.  Often out of position or just plain beaten, Steussie had no answer for the youngster's speed rush early in the contest.  Fortunately, the line and Steussie played much better after half-time, blowing open holes for Foster/Davis and only giving up three sacks for the game.  However, Steussie will be facing many more premier rush ends over the course of the season and he has to deliver for the passing game to work.

Late drive meltdown – The Indianapolis offense, stagnant for most of the second half, was backed up inside their twenty with less than three minutes to play.  All the team needed was a stop to preserve the victory.  Unfortunately, the defense was eerily reminiscent of last year's fourth quarter collapses, which cost the team at least three wins.  Peyton Manning kept connecting to wide-open receivers, even on fourth down.  Play after play of blown assignments, poor coverage and little pressure hardly helped matters.  Manning Jr. was completely turned around by Harrison on one long catch and run.  Peppers and Rucker were a step slow in getting to the quarterback.  Cornerback Reggie Howard bit badly on a Manning pump-fake, and before he could turn around Reggie Wayne was in the end-zone and celebrating the tying score.  For as well as the defense played most of the game, to give up a drive like that with so much on the line was very disappointing.  The Panthers escaped this time (as they did against Tampa Bay) but it's a big problem that needs to be corrected immediately.  

Stephen Davis ­– Davis' inclusion on this list has nothing to do with his play on the field; instead it's his injury that causes concern.  Bottled up in the first half (10 yards), Davis found room in the third quarter and made a nice 28-yard run to close within three.  He finished with 76 yards, but his forearm bruise is something Coach Fox and the staff will have to monitor this week.  Despite Foster's strong play, Davis is still the centerpiece of the Carolina offense and will be needed over the next few games.

Undefeated, the Panthers are one of three teams left in the league without a blemish on their record.  It wasn't easy Sunday, as they had to overcome a slow start and finish strong to gut out the latest win.  Still, the season could have hardly started any better.  John Fox has molded this team into a winner quicker than anyone could have expected, but time will tell if this year's edition can remain a contender at the end of the year.  The Panthers have a new trouble to deal with now – hype.  The media will spend the rest of the week telling the nation how good the Panthers are, the same way they built up the Bucs and Colts the weeks before they were beaten by Carolina.  It's a new challenge for Fox and his talented group, but hopefully he can keep the wins coming against a fierce Tennessee Titans team next Sunday.


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