Defense sparks Panthers to 20-12 victory

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Oct. 8, 2006) -- Keyshawn Johnson sneaked off to the side of the tunnel, got onto his knees and genuflected as Julius Peppers was introduced to the crowd before the game.

It was fitting, because Peppers and the Carolina defense bailed out the offense.

Peppers had a sack, forced a fumble and hit quarterback Charlie Frye five other times, and Richard Marshall returned an interception for a touchdown as the Panthers beat Cleveland 20-12, even though Johnson and Steve Smith failed to have big games against the Browns' banged-up secondary.

"Steve and I were using the restroom and as we came out, the team was already on the field," Johnson said. "We were stuck in the tunnel, but I thought maybe we should go out with them. So I thought we would go out there and mess with him and praise him."

For good reason. Coming into the game tied for the league lead with five sacks, Peppers was a nightmare for Frye, who was 26 of 43 for 173 yards and two interceptions, the last by Mike Minter that iced it. The Browns managed only four field goals by Phil Dawson.

"There is not another 290-pound guy that can move, that's as flexible or as strong as this guy," said defensive end Al Wallace, who also had a sack.

Carolina (3-2) held the Browns to 98 yards rushing in winning its third straight despite numerous dropped passes on offense and going 0 for 10 on third down.

The Browns (1-4) played without their starting cornerbacks. Gary Baxter missed his third straight game with an injured chest muscle, while Leigh Bodden (sprained ankle) was scratched.

Brodney Pool and Daven Holly started for the Browns, who also lost cornerback Daylon McCutcheon for the season to a knee injury in training camp. Holly then limped off the field late in the game.

Still, they held their own as Johnson had five catches for 67 yards and Smith was held to six catches for 62 yards. But DeShaun Foster rushed for 106 yards.

"Overall, I thought (the secondary) did pretty well," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. "Even though Keyshawn did catch a touchdown pass, we were right on him on that one."

Smith, who went over 4,000 yards receiving with a second-quarter catch, had three drops, including one in the end zone in the third quarter that led to a field goal.

"I didn't have a very good game. I hold myself to a high standard and I didn't play up to par today," Smith said.

The Panthers took a 7-3 lead thanks to Frye's eighth interception of the season. His pass bounced off Dennis Northcutt 's hands and Marshall picked it off, racing 30 yards down the left sideline.

"Once the ball tipped ... I got it and I only saw (teammate) Chris (Gamble) next to me," Marshall said. "My eyes got big and I knew I was to the house."

The Panthers extended the lead to 14-3 late in the second quarter on Jake Delhomme's 17-yard pass to Johnson, who outjumped Pool in the right corner of the end zone.

In the closing seconds of the first half, Peppers sacked Frye, forced a fumble and recovered it, but John Kasay missed a 53-yard field goal.

"It was one of those games. I felt like I played well today," said Peppers, who was playing on a tender ankle.

Josh Cribbs, who had kickoff returns of 65 and 53 yards in last week's come-from-behind win in Oakland, returned a kickoff 64 yards and a punt 34 yards in the second half, both leading to field goals.

"I'm upset with myself. I felt that I had to put us on the board," Cribbs said.

The Browns were hurt when they lost Northcutt to a rib injury in the third quarter and Reuben Droughns, who rushed for a career-high 193 yards against Carolina two years ago with Denver, was held to 65 yards on 18 carries.

Delhomme was 20 of 29 for 170 yards and no interceptions. He was sacked only once even though Carolina again played without injured center Justin Hartwig.

Panthers rookie running back DeAngelo Williams left in the second quarter with a right ankle injury. But with Peppers dominating, the Panthers never felt threatened.

"We knew what that offense was going to do," DT Mike Rucker said. "There were times when from watching film we knew exactly we were going to do and we were beating them to the punch."

Notes:

Panthers cornerback Ken Lucas, who was not in the starting lineup last week due to poor tackling caused by a neck and shoulder injury, started Sunday. ... Smith joined Muhsin Muhammad as the only receivers to go over 4,000 yards receiving with Carolina ... Thanks to the gloomy weather, there were more than 10,000 no-shows.

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