Panther Insider Notes

Stephen Davis, the NFC's leading rusher, turned up on the team's injury report as questionable with a sprained ankle

The league's second-ranked running game may not be at full strength Sunday when the Carolina Panthers host the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Stephen Davis, the NFC's leading rusher, turned up on the team's injury report as questionable with a sprained ankle.

The news came as a surprise, especially since Davis wasn't listed as one of the players who suffered an injury in Sunday's 14-10 loss to the Houston Texans.

According to head coach John Fox, Davis' ankle began to swell on Monday night and he reported some more on Tuesday. Davis did not practice Wednesday, but the Panthers hope to have him back this week.

Davis was a no-show in the team's open locker room Wednesday, but he did participate in a conference call with beat reporters from Tampa Bay and said he expects to play.

Fox, meanwhile, was purposely vague on Davis' injury and wouldn't even reveal which ankle the running back had injured.

"I checked the rules, and I don't have to (give that information out)," Fox said. "You've got to understand, a running back is laying on the ground a lot and there are piles. It could be a disadvantage them knowing that." If this is Fox's idea of gamesmanship, the Bucs aren't buying into it.

Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden said he fully expects Davis to get the bulk of carries on Sunday. Davis ran for 142 yards in the first meeting between the two teams, a 12-9 overtime victory by Carolina at Raymond James Stadium. "We fully expect him to be at his best Sunday," Gruden said. However, if Davis' ankle continues to bother him throughout the week, the Bucs could see more of second-year back DeShaun Foster.

There's isn't a gigantic drop-off in talent with Foster, and he's actually quicker than Davis. In fact, Davis and Foster are both averaging 5.1 yards per carry this season.

The big difference, of course, is Davis has carried 193 times while Foster has carried 45. Also, Foster seems to have a knack for putting the ball on the ground, something that has carried over from his college days at UCLA.

Panthers head coach John Fox said he isn't concerned that Davis, 30, is getting too much of the workload and is beginning to wear down. Through eight games, Davis is averaging 24.1 carries per game. <>"It's not a matter of wearing down," Fox said. "It is a physical position and sometimes you get nicks. There are a lot of backs in this league that have missed time. It is the nature of the position. That is why we have DeShaun Foster and Rod Smart and some other backs that we feel comfortable with. I would like to have him versus the alternative, but we have got to move on."

Fox said he anticipates having everyone healthy for Sunday, including NFL sack leader Mike Rucker.

SERIES HISTORY: 7th meeting. Bucs lead series 4-2. The Panthers won the meeting earlier this year 12-9 behind four John Kasay field goals and some outstanding special teams play. Carolina blocked two field goals and an extra point in the Week 2 win.

--How big is Sunday's game? Consider this: A win over Tampa Bay would all but solidify an NFC South title for the Panthers. If the Panthers win, they would improve to 7-2, while the Saints and Bucs would be 4-5. However, since the Panthers would have swept the season series with Tampa Bay and New Orleans, the Panthers would win every possible tiebreaker scenario between the three teams.

That, in essence, would give the Panthers a four-game lead in the NFC South with only seven games left. Even the Boston Red Sox couldn't blow that type of a lead, could they?

Carolina is 4-0 in the division. Asked if this is a do or die game for the Bucs, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme replied, "Maybe so. But that team, they're resilient. They come back. We have to match their toughness and intensity this Sunday."

--Delhomme was on a Saints team that started last season 5-2 only to fail to make the playoffs. He isn't worried about the same thing happening here in Carolina.

"This is a totally different team. This is for the better," Delhomme said. "We've just got some big-time character guys in here and guys that want to work and get after it. That goes a long way."

Asked if he plans to use last year as a lesson for his teammates, Delhomme said, "I don't think it needs to be brought up. That's two totally different teams. Foxy tells us all the time we can be 10-6 or we can be 6-10. We can determine how we finish the year. If we come out and play like we did the first half of the season we'll do some good things."

--The Panthers really seem to be struggling in the red zone of late, but Fox isn't overly concerned.

"It is a tough area of the field," he said. "All of the advantages are with the defense. It is something you have to work at. We have to improve our run in that area. It is something that we are working very hard on."

--Fox is contemplating asking game officials to closely watch the hands to the face penalties by Tampa Bay offensive lineman Kenyatta Walker when he meets with them before Sunday's game.

"My experience sometimes has been that when you warn them, it goes the other way," Fox said. "I am debating on what to do in that meeting."

BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- Number of sacks by veteran Mike Rucker, Carolina's underrated veteran right defensive end.

2 -- Number of sacks by Julius Peppers, Carolina's left defensive end and last year's Rookie Defensive Player of the Year.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The officials dictate that. I don't think it is always just players. The officiating crew in that game called a lot of holding penalties. When you have two very physical lines playing against each other, that sometimes happens. But every crew is different, so I am not really sure what to expect this week." -- Panthers head coach John Fox on whether he expects as many penalties called as there were the first time these two teams met in Week. In that game, the two teams combined for 32 penalties.

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