Behind Enemy Lines: Panthers vs Chargers II

Our experts, Brad Thomas of and Michael Lombardo of, analyze Sunday's game between the Panthers and Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. Part two finishes the series with six questions from Michael to Brad.

Michael Lombardo: What will the Panthers do to replace Steve Smith's presence in the passing game? Which players will be asked to step up?

Brad Thomas: Smith will be sorely missed, and the injury to Jason Carter worsened what was an already bad situation for the Panthers. Muhsin Muhammad, Dwayne Jarrett and D.J. Hackett (who returned to practice for the first time in a month this week) will be asked to take up the slack. Don't be surprised, though, if the tight end isn't a big factor for the Panthers. Jake Delhomme has built an on-field rapport with TE's Jeff King and Dante Rosario. Look for the Panthers to try to move the ball in small chunks and wear down the Chargers' defense in an effort to make their running game more effective later in the game.

ML: How will the Panthers divvy up carries between 2006 first-round pick DeAngelo Williams and 2008 first-rounder Jonathan Stewart? How much will Carolina lean on its re-shaped rushing attack?

BT: As usual, head coach John Fox hasn't divulged that information. In the third preseasong game against the Washington Redskins, Stewart and Williams alternated series. It's possible the Panthers use that approach again, with Stewart getting the short-yardage carries.

The running game has been a focus of the Panthers' retooling in the offseason. The team traded to acquire an extra first round pick in this past draft in order to select OT Jeff Otah. they cut OG Mike Wahle and C Justin Hartwig in the offseason and brought in bigger players to replace them, as the Panthers shifted from a lighter, quicker line to a bigger, more powerful line. The team hopes that Jonathan Stewart can serve in a similar role that Stephen Davis filled in 2003, when the Panthers made it all the way to the Super Bowl.

ML: What do you expect from Jake Delhomme in his first meaningful game since last September? How will he fare protecting the football against a defense that finished last season No. 1 in takeaways and No. 5 in sacks?

BT: The Panthers couldn't face a better test in week one than the Chargers -- a team that has a great defense and a great running game. Delhomme didn't have a stellar preseason, but showed he has velocity on his passes and can take a hit. I expect him to be rusty and attempt a few throws that he *thinks* he can make that may be picked-off because of it. If the Panthers can establish their running game, this will be less of a factor, but if they can't, Delhomme's rustiness and the absence of Smith may snowball.

ML: Julius Peppers' productivity has been all over the board, netting 13 sacks in 2006 and only 2.5 sacks last season. Based on his performance this offseason, do you expect him to bounce back? Is it possible last season was just an aberration?

BT: Last season certainly was an aberration. Allegedly, Peppers was undergoing treatment for an illness that required an aggressive treatment of medicines that sapped his energy and stamina. The team, nor Peppers, will comment on the situation.

This preseason, Peppers has looked very good and appears to be back to his All-Pro form. He's switched from left defensive end to the right, which he feels is his natural position. Add that this is a contract year for Peppers, and he should post double-digit sacks again in 2008.

ML: How will the Panthers cover Antonio Gates? Will they use a linebacker or a defensive back? Or will they roll zone coverage his way? Do you believe they will wait and see how he moves on his injured toe before double-teaming him?

BT: Tight ends have historically given the John Fox-led Carolina Panthers fits defensively. I think they'll likely employ a zone coverage with a safety over top to try to limit his effectiveness.

ML: The Panthers recently signed kick returner Mark Jones, who spent his training camp in San Diego. Will he handle both kick and punt returns during the season opener? Do you think the Panthers coaches are in his ear asking about the Chargers' game plan for Sept. 7?

BT: Jones will serve as the punt and kick returner on Sunday. The media in Charlotte asked Jones if he had been asked to divulge any secrets, and he said no, that he was focusing on learning the Panthers' system. I think they probably have picked his brain about formations and tendencies -- why wouldn't they? It's a long plane ride to San Diego from Charlotte.

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