Hard work pays off in Red Zone

When the Carolina Panthers reach the red zone, they have the utmost confidence they will come away with seven points. And why not? The Panthers have reached the red zone 26 times this season, finding the end zone 20 times. With a 76.9 touchdown percentage, the Panthers lead the league by a fairly wide margin heading into Sunday's game against the New York Jets.

The next highest is San Diego, which has converted 69.7 percent (23 of 33) of its red zone opportunities.

Bring up his team's impressive red-zone numbers to quarterback Jake Delhomme and he grimaces, quickly flashing back in his mind to last Sunday when the Panthers failed to get in the end zone on three plays from the Tampa Bay 1-yard line.

"The thing you have to look at is that we let one go last weekend from the 1. We didn't punch it in," Delhomme said. "We ran it twice and threw it once, but didn't get in. So obviously there's more work that needs to be done down there."

But perhaps therein lies the reason the Panthers have been so successful inside their opponent's 20 -- they expect to come away with seven points in the red zone.

Anything less than a touchdown is a bitter disappointment and, in Delhomme's eyes, unacceptable.

Interestingly enough, red-zone success doesn't necessarily equate to overall team success.

When the Panthers went to the Super Bowl two years ago, they were terrible in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on just 41.9 percent (18 of 43) of their opportunities, which ranked 28th in the league.

Last year, the Panthers improved to fifth in the NFL, converting 59.6 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns.

"It's something that we did a lot of off-season study on," Panthers coach John Fox said. "I think our coaching staff, offensively, has done a good job communicating to our players what we want to get done down there, and we've done a good job executing.

"I think, defensively, we've gotten some good field position in that area and we've been able to convert, in most cases, to touchdowns, which are huge as far as scoring points, because it's a four-point swing. It's an area that we've been good at thus far. These guys have been together for a while, and our staff has been together for a while. Our guys know what's expected, and now we just have to execute."

The Jets rank in the middle of the pack in the NFL in red-zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 50 percent of their opportunities.

Stephen Davis has accounted for the majority of Carolina's red-zone scores with all 11 of his rushing touchdowns coming inside the 20, eight of those from the 1.

Davis offers no particular reason for the team's red-zone success, except to say it comes from plenty of hard work during the week.

"We are doing a good job on it in practice," Davis said. "And you don't get down there a lot, and when you do, you want to score a touchdown. Guys have been doing a great job of making plays and getting in the end zone."

Delhomme said the team's play-calling in the red zone hasn't changed all that much from 2003, but the team is simply executing better.

"I don't want to say it's luck. I think we work hard at it," Delhomme said. "We've had a couple of nice touchdown runs from Stephen (Davis) in the last couple of weeks.

"It's the same plays we have been running for probably two or three years. Sometimes you change formations and things like that, but I think you just learn. That's the toughest part of the field. You can move the ball between the 20s, but down there it gets tough because everything is tighter. Our coaches are just putting us in the right spots, and guys are making plays."

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