The Carolina Panthers may need another monster game from running back DeShaun Foster when they open the season Sunday at home against the Atlanta Falcons.
With star receiver Steve Smith's status in doubt, the Panthers will rely heavily on Foster, who terrorized the Falcons last season. In 2005, he ran for a combined 296 yards, averaged more than seven yards per carry and scored three touchdowns as the Panthers swept the season series for the first time since 1997.
Foster ran for 131 yards on 24 carries in a 24-6 win over the Falcons on Dec. 4 win at Bank of America Stadium, and later burned the Falcons for 165 yards on just 18 carries, including a 70-yard touchdown run, in a 44-11 rout at the Georgia Dome in the regular season finale to help the Panthers clinch a wild card berth.
Smith missed the large majority of training camp with a left hamstring injury and then tweaked his right hamstring on Tuesday. He did not practice Wednesday.
"He tweaked his other hamstring," coach John Fox said Wednesday. "We rested him today and we'll see what it looks like tomorrow."
Although Smith would certainly love to get back on the field, especially after taking some verbal jabs from Atlanta Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, he sounded a little like a player who knows that may be physically impossible given his recent history of hamstring injuries.
"This is a long season and it's stupid to jeopardize anything over something foolish, whether it's jabbering (with Hall) or something that may hinder myself or my team long term," Smith said. "Because that is what I'm in this game for -- long-term, not little cliff notes."
When asked directly if he thinks he'll be ready to play Sunday, he replied tersely, "Today is not Sunday."
Quarterback Jake Delhomme said despite the setback, he still expects to see Smith on the field and doesn't believe his absence from practice is any big deal.
"I don't think it is (a concern)," Delhomme said. "He's been out there with us practicing, and he looks pretty darn good. He made a couple of catches out there (Tuesday before the injury) that made me think, 'Okay, he's all right.' Certainly, you'd like to have him out there. But if not, that's just the way it goes sometimes."
Smith has been added to the injury report as questionable, but it's conceivable he will not play Sunday. If he can't go, look for Drew Carter or Keary Colbert to start in his place.
Smith first injured his left hamstring during the team's June minicamp, forcing him to miss the final week of practice. The Panthers had more than a month off before the start of training camp, but on the first day of practice in Spartanburg, S.C., Smith re-injured the left hamstring, forcing him to miss three weeks of practice.
Smith returned for a few days, but then went back to the sidelines following surgery to remove an ingrown toenail. He didn't play at all in the preseason, but the Panthers were hoping Smith would be ready to go in the season opener.
If Smith can't play, that puts added pressure on the Panthers' running game, which is led by Foster and rookie DeAngelo Williams.
This time around, the Falcons are confident their beefed up defensive line will help foil Carolina's game plan. After finishing 26th against the run last season, Atlanta added free agent defensive end John Abraham and nose tackle Grady Jackson in the off-season. Also, the Falcons get middle linebacker Ed Hartwell back from a season-ending injury last season, allowing Keith Brooking to move back outside.
The Panthers have questions on the offensive line with Justin Hartwig taking over for Jeff Mitchell this year at center and Evan Mathis now starting at right guard.
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