Game Snapshot: Saints - Panthers

<b>New Orleans Saints</b> (1-3) at <b> Carolina Panthers</b> (3-0)<br><b>GAME SNAPSHOT</b><br><b>KICKOFF: </b> Sunday, 1:00 ET<br><b>GAMEDATE: </b> 10/05/03<br><b>SURFACE:</b> Grass<br><b>TV: </b> FOX, Ron Pitts, Tim Ryan<br><br> <b>SERIES: </b> 17th meeting. Saints lead series 9-7. The Panthers knocked the Saints out of the playoff race with a 10-6 victory over New Orleans in last year's season finale. By virtue of that win, Atlanta made the playoffs instead of New Orleans.<br><br>

2003 RANKINGS: Saints: offense 20th (19th rush, 18th pass); defense 23rd (19th rush, 21st pass). Panthers: offense 26th (3rd rush, 18th pass); defense 22nd (12th rush, 29th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Saints continue to struggle with injuries on defense and will load up to try and stop Panthers RB Stephen Davis. The secondary has been hit hard by injuries, but New Orleans would rather take its chances against QB Jake Delhomme, a former Saint making just his third career start. To have any chance against the Panthers' formidable defensive line, the Saints have to get a big game from RB Deuce McAllister. If New Orleans falls behind and needs to rely on the passing game, Carolina's pass rush will wreak havoc. QB Aaron Brooks is getting comfortable with new TE Ernie Conwell, and he will provide a valuable target over the middle.

FAST FACTS: Saints: The defense has produced just three turnovers this season. ... The team is 16-10 on the road under coach Jim Haslett. Panthers: Davis can become the first player to begin his career with a second team with four consecutive 100-yard rushing games. ... They are trying to improve to 4-0 for the first time in franchise history. ... The defense has not allowed a touchdown since Week 1.

PREDICTED SCORE: Panthers 20, Saints 13

PERSONNEL NEWS
Saints:

WR Joe Horn is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Panthers because of a bruised bone in his left knee. Horn did not practice Wednesday or Thursday.

LCB Dale Carter, who fractured the orbit bone around his left eye on Sept. 14, practiced on a limited basis Wednesday and Thursday with a protective shield on his facemask. He was upgraded from out to doubtful Thursday.

DT Johnathan Sullivan, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Sept. 17, was upgraded from doubtful to questionable after practicing Wednesday and Thursday.

FS Tebucky Jones has a strained groin and is listed as doubtful for Sunday although he's not likely to play.

LT Wayne Gandy has an injured right hamstring and is also listed as doubtful.

WR/KR Michael Lewis has a strained groin and will be sidelined three-to-four weeks.

DT Kenny Smith is out two-to-four weeks with a knee injury.

SLB Sedrick Hodge will be out at least four more weeks with a hairline fracture in his lower right leg.

DE Darren Howard underwent surgery for a dislocated right wrist on Sept. 8 and will be sidelined another seven-to-nine weeks.

LB Cie Grant, who missed the first four games after having arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 27, will likely be out again Sunday even though he practiced on a limited basis on Thursday.

FS Victor Green, who was signed on Sept. 17, will make his first start for the Saints. He went into the game against the Colts in the second quarter when Tebucky Jones injured his groin.

LT Spencer Folau will replace Wayne Gandy in the lineup on Sunday if Gandy can't play because of an injury to his right hamstring.

WR Donte Stallworth will be the primary punt returner in place of Michael Lewis on Sunday. Stallworth took over the duties when Lewis was injured in the second half against the Colts.

RB Fred McAfee will likely return kickoffs against the Panthers with Michael Lewis out.

CB Fred Thomas will start again at left cornerback in place of Dale Carter if Carter can't play.

Panthers:
LB Dan Morgan practiced again Thursday and is expected to start Sunday against New Orleans.

TE Kris Mangum practiced on Thursday and the Panthers are hopeful he might be available this weekend. Mangum is nursing a sprained ankle.

LB Mike Caldwell practiced for the Panthers on Thursday and he could see his first action since Week One.

WR Steve Smith said he's unhappy with the team's front office over comments made about him being a "marginal" player.

K John Kasay is a perfect 8-for-8 in field goal attempts entering Sunday's game against the Saints.

INSIDE THE CAMPS
Saints:

The Saints say the key to ending their recent offensive struggles is in protecting the ball, but it won't hurt if they start having some fun when they're on the field.

In their three losses, the Saints have turned the ball over 10 times (they had none in their lone win). They had four giveaways against the Seattle Seahawks (27-10) and Indianapolis Colts (55-21) and two against the Tennessee Titans (27-12). The four turnovers inside their own 25 against the Colts resulted in four touchdowns.

So when the Saints returned to practice on Wednesday for Sunday's game with the unbeaten Carolina Panthers, the goal was to work at eliminating turnovers and just be themselves.

"There was a big emphasis on today's practice to have fun," quarterback Aaron Brooks said. "I was out there bouncing around and I talked a lot with a lot of players. Hopefully, it will spread throughout the whole team.

"I think that's the key," he said. "We need to come back to having fun. That's the way we play this game. We've played it all our lives, so we've got to get back to having fun."

Brooks, who had two fumbles and two interceptions against the Colts, and running back Deuce McAllister said the Saints have been too tense and uptight at times this season.

"Each week, I think some people start to feel the pressure outside of here and that's not good," Brooks said. "Those things can become a distraction. That's why we're looking forward to Carolina, having a little fun and trying to get into our groove until we get our starters back."

"Obviously, we're disappointed as players and we know we disappointed our families and fans," McAllister said. "But we just need to go out there and have fun. It's too tense. When you're putting too much stress and pressure on yourself, you see the results."

Saints coach Jim Haslett agreed.

"We can't be worried about every little thing that happens, this is still a game," he said. "I told them, ‘Hey, let's go out, do the right things, take care of the ball and still enjoy what you're doing and have some fun.' One-and-three is not much fun, but you've got to try to enjoy (the game)."

Panthers:
Carolina Panthers leading receiver Steve Smith lashed out at the team's front office on Thursday, criticizing them for not offering him a contract extension and allegedly calling him a "marginal" NFL receiver during a recent conversation with his agent, Derrick Fox.

"(My agent) told me I haven't received a contract because I'm a ‘marginal receiver.' That's what the (Panthers) told him. I call that a spit in my (expletive) face, that's what it is," Smith said at the beginning of an unprovoked tirade.

Smith said the comment came during a conversation between a member of the team's front office and his agent earlier this week surrounding talks regarding a potential contract extension for Smith, whose is in the final year of a three-year contract. Smith is making $389,000 this year, the league minimum for a third-year player.

"I don't have a contract, they haven't offered me a contract, they haven't talked to me about a contract," Smith said. "They called us Monday basically spitting in my face about why I haven't got a contract. I haven't bugged them, I haven't asked them for a contract. I haven't said anything to them, they called me and said the reasons why I haven't got a contract, so (screw) them."

The comments come with the Panthers atop the NFC South at 3-0.

Later Thursday, Fox admitted the Panthers didn't use the team "marginal," but instead called Smith "unproven."

But by then, the damage was done.

An emotional Smith had already spoken his mind to reporters on his feelings about the Panthers during the team's one-hour open locker room session. At one point, teammates Karl Hankton and Muhsin Muhammad, who were sitting close by, advised Smith to cut off the interview and go take a shower.

"I've been questioned my whole life," Smith said. "Week in and week out, I continue to make plays, no matter what team I play for. It could be for the Carolina Cobras. I've been playing this game for awhile, to feed my family and to have fun... I'm not here to have somebody spit in my (expletive) face. I am not here to have somebody question my abilities."

Carolina general manager Marty Hurney refused to respond to Smith's comments or talk about negotiations. He also refused to say if Smith might face any disciplinary action for conduct detrimental to the team for his comments regarding the team.

According to Fox, the Panthers feel like Smith still has something to prove.

"Marty came at me and told me that he wants to work a deal with us, but that first they were going to try to work this (contract extension) with Kris Jenkins," Fox said. "He said that he wanted to keep Steve a Panther. Well, they keep saying they love Steve, that Steve's this and Steve's that. They say Steve's all that but then they say that he still has to prove himself."

Smith was suspended one game last season for severely beating teammate Anthony Bright during a film room fight. Bright was left with a broken nose, eye damage and several lacerations on his face. As part of his return to the team, Smith was ordered to attend anger management classes.

Smith apparently feels he deserves a contract extension because he's leading the team in receptions (12) and receiving yards (118) after three games this year. To put those numbers in perspective, Smith is tied for 27th in the NFC in receptions.

He's done well on punt returns, averaging 17.4 yards per return.

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