Panthers news and notes

Middle linebacker Dan Morgan and defensive end Julius Peppers returned to the practice field Thursday for the Carolina Panthers, a good indication both should play in Sunday's key NFC South showdown against Tampa Bay. Morgan has missed the last two games with an ankle injury.

Tutan Reyes, the starting right guard, was back to work Thursday, along with special teams ace Karl Hankton. Hankton and Idrees Bashir were both upgraded from questionable to probable.

However, the Panthers are still without defensive end Mike Rucker and starting tight end Michael Gaines. Rucker remains questionable after injuring his ankle last Sunday on a cut block by Atlanta Falcons left tackle Kevin Shaffer.

Rucker was a key factor in Carolina's 34-14 win over the Falcons, recording two sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery to earn NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

If Rucker can't go, Al Wallace would get the start for the Panthers.

"We feel good about the depth on our defensive line," Fox said. "We have two guys that we have not had uniforms for in (rookies) Jovan Haye and Atiyyah Ellison, who we feel good about. That's why we've had them on the roster for instances like this. We feel good about our depth there."

As for getting Morgan back on the practice field, Fox said, "He looked good. He was close last week but not quite ready. He should be ready this week."

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--DeShaun Foster has become the Carolina Panthers' featured back, but will he become their franchise back?

This final stretch of games could determine that for Foster, who becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season.

He's off to a pretty good start, rushing for 131 yards on 24 carries last week and gaining 180 all-purpose yards while scoring twice in a 24-6 win over the Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers are looking for more offense this week from Foster when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a key NFC South divisional showdown.

Foster has carried the ball 55 times over the past three weeks to Stephen Davis' 16.

It's what most expected when the Panthers started training camp, but instead Davis was surprisingly thrust into the starting lineup as soon as he returned to practice following major knee surgery in 2004.

For the better part of the season, the Panthers gave Davis a chance to prove himself, but a few weeks ago they grew weary of his 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Prior to last week the Panthers had not had a 100-yard rusher and ranked last in the NFL in yards per carry.

Foster has more big-play potential, although he does have a propensity for fumbling.

Nonetheless, it's pretty clear the Panthers are giving him one last chance to prove himself before decision time this off-season.

For most running backs, that would be a time of great exultation.

Not for Foster, though.

Despite the sudden increase in playing time, he has remained calm and quiet over his latest big opportunity. Maybe it is because he's had this opportunity before and watched it quickly slip away.

When Davis' knee swelled up in the season opener in 2004, Foster stepped in as the starter and ran for a career-high 174 yards on 32 carries against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2. But two weeks later he was on injured reserve, done for the season.

"All I can do is just get out there and play," Foster said. "I just have to stay prepared and when they call my number, be ready."

Foster has always been a soft-spoken, humble guy, even after rushing for an astounding 3,398 yards and a California state record 59 touchdowns his senior year at Triston High School, statistics that earned him USA Today Player of the Year honors.

Some teammates believe Foster's lack of enthusiasm toward taking over as the primary back may be out of respect for Davis, his close friend and mentor.

"I think it's a deal where those two guys respect each other immensely and they are going to take what the coaches give them," said safety Mike Minter. "If that's 20 carries for Steve and 10 for DeShaun or vice versa, that's what they are going to do."

Whenever Foster had a chance to talk about replacing Davis as the primary ball carrier, he tried desperately to avoid the question and include Davis as part of the offense.

"I don't think that's it," Foster said. "It's not just going out there and replacing somebody. We've both got to stay ready. As soon as they call Stephen's name, he's going to be ready. The same thing with me. You need two good backs in this league."

Given the 31-year old Davis' struggles this year, there's a chance the Panthers could cut him loose after the season and simply blame it on the salary cap.

Davis has two years remaining on his current contract.

The Panthers have second-round draft pick Eric Shelton waiting in the wings on injured reserve, seemingly ready to replace Davis. And while Shelton struggled picking things up in training camp this past summer, coaches say he's improved in that area simply by being around practice.

Shelton vows to be ready in 2006.

"Right now, I know all of the calls and where I'm supposed to be," Shelton said. "I think I can be a big-time back."

Surely, Foster will command some interest from other teams around the league in free agency based on his ability to break the big run.

So the question becomes how much are the Panthers willing to pay to keep him. They've attempted to extend his contract this season, but the two sides remain far apart and have basically agreed to postpone talks until after the season.

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SERIES HISTORY: 11th meeting. Panthers lead series 6-4. In the last meeting on Nov. 6, the Panthers forced four turnovers and cornerback Chris Gamble returned an interception 61 yards for a touchdown. Stephen Davis scored on two short touchdown runs and Steve Smith caught five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown.

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--RB Stephen Davis, who has started 11 of Carolina's 12 games this season, said it's time for coach John Fox to make DeShaun Foster the starter this week against Tampa Bay. "Yeah, it is," Davis said. "I mean, the guy played the last couple of games and he's been playing well. He has been making plays and making the most of his opportunities. ... He deserves the opportunity to start." While Fox has said he won't name his starters until the day of the game, Davis said he has a good inkling Foster will start Sunday for the first time since Week 2.

--How big is this week's game for Carolina?

Consider this: If the Panthers falter on Sunday at home, then the Bucs will move into a tie for first place in the NFC South at 9-4 and essentially take control of the division.

Because the head-to-head series would be even, the next tiebreaker is best division record and a Bucs victory would give them the edge at 3-1 in the NFC South to Carolina's 2-2.

So if the Bucs ran the table, they would win the NFC South, regardless of what Carolina does the remainder of the season.

The Panthers are well aware of that scenario.

"Everybody knows what is at stake," Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "If they come in here and beat us, they're right back on top of the division. It's the biggest game of the year because it's the next one."

When asked if he's concerned about a letdown after such an emotional victory last week against Atlanta, Panthers coach John Fox replied, "That's always a concern. Getting the guys rested, both mentally and physically, is going to be key.

"They understand when you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. We're getting the best out of them we can, and they understand this is a very, very big and important game."

In case you're wondering, Tampa Bay's finishing stretch begins at New England, and then at home against Atlanta and New Orleans, all of which are winnable games for the Bucs.

--Carolina's defensive linemen weren't exactly thrilled with all of the cut blocks they took from the Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday.

When asked about the danger involved in such blocks, defensive end Al Wallace said, "That's kind of like allowing NASCAR drivers to shoot out each other's tires."

Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, who injured his ankle on a low block by Alge Crumpler, said he would like to see rules put in place to keep defensive players from getting injured by cut blocks.

"They protect the quarterbacks and you can't put a hand on them in certain situations," Peppers said. "I think they should take a look at how everybody's being protected. But that's really somebody else's argument."

--Jake Delhomme was asked Wednesday how much he thinks Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning audibles a game.

Delhomme responded with a laugh, saying, "You never know what Peyton's doing. He might just be telling everyone, 'Hey, if we win I'll buy you dinner.' Peyton won't tell anybody what he's doing. That's just how he is. As for me, I do enough gyrations without meaning to. That's the Cajun coming out of me."

--When asked if he's ever made ESPN Prime Time's "Jacked Up" segment hosted by Tom Jackson, Delhomme laughed and said. "I don't know that I've made it, but I have enabled guys on my team to make it, unfortunately.

"I had a streak going there my first year. We're trying to keep our guys off of that show. I haven't seen it all year, I'll be honest with you. I have a kid. That's Scooby Doo time."

BY THE NUMBERS: 5-0 - Jake Delhomme's record as a starter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That's the same record Michael Vick had against the Panthers coming into last week's game that the Panthers won 24-6.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You can't relax in the fourth quarter or bad things happen. That's where we are moving forward, in the fourth quarter of our season. You win or lose seasons and games in the fourth quarter. Our message is going to be that all of our focus is going to be on Tampa Bay. It's another division and conference game that's going to be key as the season moves on." - Panthers coach John Fox

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The Panthers used linebacker/safety Thomas Davis as a spy against Atlanta, but his role could be reduced just a little against Tampa Bay this week.

"We will still use Thomas," defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said. "I don't know if we will use him as much, but he will still be a part of the game plan. It will depend on how the game goes."

Davis played about 35 snaps on Sunday against Atlanta, nearly double his season average.

--The fact that you haven't heard much about defensive tackle Jordan Carstens is a huge tribute to the second-year defensive tackle from Iowa State.

Carstens' ability to step in for two-time All-Pro defensive tackle Kris Jenkins is a major reason why the Panthers are second in the league against the run.

"I haven't heard anything about Kris Jenkins and not to slight Kris Jenkins, but Jordan has stepped in and a done a great job," said defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac. "That is a great tribute to our scouting department and our personnel department. He's come in and done a good job."

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