PANTHERS MORNING AFTER – CARDINALS

The Carolina Panthers are developing a nickname: Escape Artists. The magic act continued Sunday in Carolina's victory against the Arizona Cardinals.

FIRST AND TEN

Ken Lucas is proving to be worth every penny the Panthers paid him in the offseason. Think of Lucas as the '05 version of the Panthers' '02 acquisition of Stephen Davis: a one-player addition that changed the entire face of the franchise.

It could be argued that Lucas is largely responsible for two of Carolina's three wins so far this season. And just like Davis during the Panthers' Super Bowl run, Lucas is having the same kind of impact.

The first win, against the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, saw the Panthers follow Lucas' example into one of the most physically violent games seen in the NFL this season. Lucas set the tone early on in that contest with an all out tackle of a touchdown-bound Troy Brown. He also solidified the left side of the defense. Lucas' contribution was the clear difference in that game.

Against the Cardinals, Lucas switched sidelines with an obviously hobbled Chris Gamble and swatted away two sure touchdown passes – both of which landed in the opportunistic paws of safety Marlon McCree.

There were questions running around training camp regarding the Panthers' expensive lust for Lucas. You don't hear those questions any more - and for good reason.

How much are two wins worth anyway?

Money well spent, if you ask me.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST

* I'm going to get creamed in some quarters by saying this, but I think Sunday's improbable win is proof positive that the Panthers are becoming a good team. I know, insanity. Good teams, especially the good teams that get gouged like the Panthers did Sunday, find a way to exploit opportunities. Carolina did just that, and came home with a win they probably shouldn't have gotten.

* As it stands, the victory in Phoenix was the most embarrassing win in franchise history – highlighted by with the most pitiful collective tackling job in franchise history.

* Keary Colbert went deep on an out pattern and never came back.

* Despite his lack of height, Ricky Manning has excellent field vision. His run-reads against the Cardinals were outstanding. Good hitter.

* I haven't reviewed the tape to confirm this, but in the first half, Chris Gamble dropped an easy interception that resulted in a field goal, while Ken Lucas let one slip away in the second half that eventually led to a touchdown. This is not a criticism - only the frustrating reality of not making the play.

* The red zone is becoming a confidence-builder for the Panthers. An 80% TD success rate is getting it done.

* What the Panthers aren't getting are sacks because there's almost zero penetration in the middle of the line. Opponents are double-teaming Julius Peppers and chip-blocking Mike Rucker, and getting away with it.

* What in the name of Ted Thompson is Brentsen Buckner doing dropping into coverage?

* Arizona did an outstanding job picking up blitzes and scheme-blocking for them.

* The din-and-dink continues to work against the Panthers. Of course, when your receivers are seven feet tall, over 250 pounds and run a 4-3 forty…dink and dunk becomes six more often than it should.

* DeShaun Foster continues to impress as a running back and receiver. He's going to get himself killed, however, if he keeps leading with his back instead of his shoulders.

* I think I murdered my remote when Anquan Boldin ran through the entire Panthers defense for a touchdown. My dog will probably need therapy, too.

* At or around 4:07 p.m., I had this thought: OPPORTUNITY. All fellow NFC South members fell to non-division opponents. With a win, Carolina could pick up a game in the standings on all of them.

* I'm not sure I understand how a punter can have an off day. But somehow Jason Baker managed to have one.

* I think Jamal Robertson should keep the kickoff return job. I know Rod Smart will get his job back because John Fox rightfully won't let a starter lose his job to an injury, but Robertson represents a threat at the position Smart simply does not express.

* A question: Had the two Fox announcers actually watched any of the previous four Panthers games prior to Sunday's kickoff?

* John Kasay's 63-yard attempt seconds before half time would have been good from 70. Maybe more.

* Kasay's depth on kickoffs has not gone unnoticed.

* But, good grief, Neal Rackers can get ‘em deep. Accurate, too.

* I suppose it's time to cut Carolina's defense some slack. They did, after all, keep the venerable Josh McCown under 400 yards throwing for the game.

* Thank you, Anquan. Love ya. Mean it.

* It was good to see Al Wallace get rewarded for his consistently hard work.

THIRD AND GOAL

Opponents are following a simple formula against the Panthers, with modest success. Throw short, quick, passes on offense to keep Carolina's defensive line from getting enough time to create pressure, then stack the line on defense and make Jake Delhomme beat you.

Even with the win Sunday, Carolina did little to dissuade upcoming opponents from matching the strategy.

The aerial attack Arizona displayed chipped away at the already cracked Panther reputation for defensive toughness, though Carolina's defense found a way to make plays when it mattered most. Still, Arizona's success was symptomatic of a much deeper Panthers problem.

John Fox's own formula for success is not working.

The defensive line is too soft in the middle without Kris Jenkins. Opponent passing lanes are too clear and the space behind the linebackers is too deep. The lack of penetration fails to push the quarterback to the defense's pass-rushing specialists and allows time and a free field of fire. Tackling is also a major issue.

On offense, the line is slow to form a cohesive group. Breakdowns on the corners are forcing the coaching staff to keep a running back or tight end in to block, thus limiting options. A shaky line has led to a shaky quarterback and a shaky running game.

Fox's goals of ball control and solid defense are falling short of expectations.

Carolina is fortunate to be 3-2.

TOUCHDOWN

The good news is that most of the Panthers' problems are fundamental and should improve as the season moves along.

Last year's difficulties were structural in nature. Injury sucked up too much talent.

This Panthers squad has no such excuse.

The defense must tackle better. The offense must block better. The quarterback must find his feet.

Simple. Fundamental. Fixable.

No magic required.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com

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