Peppers, Panthers start off strong in preseason opener

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Julius Peppers broke out of his slumber and was dominant again. DeAngelo Williams made a case to start by darting through giant holes opened by the new, mammoth offensive line.

Jake Delhomme had no setbacks from his elbow surgery. Steve Smith made another spectacular catch -- and kept his hands off his teammates.

The strong performances gave rise to optimism, and wariness, after the Panthers' 23-20 overtime win against the Indianapolis Colts in Saturday's preseason opener.

On the road back?


If his performance against the Colts is any indication, Julius Peppers will return to his dominant form after a down year in 2007. See just how much his overall production dropped off last year compared to the rest of his career:

Last season

» Tackles: 38

» Sacks: 2.5

» Passes defensed: 5

Previous five seasons

» Avg. tackles: 50

» Avg. sacks: 10.7

» Avg. passes def.: 5.2

"It was just nice to have both sides of the ball operating efficiently to start the game," left tackle Jordan Gross said.

But the Panthers have done this before. They are 17-8 in exhibitions under coach John Fox and have won six straight preseason openers. The offense has scored on its first possession three straight years.

It didn't translate to the regular season the last two years, with the 8-8 and 7-9 records putting plenty of pressure on Fox and the Panthers to produce this year.

Still, the early signs against a makeshift Colts team missing Peyton Manning, Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders were clearly encouraging.

Peppers, who lacked energy, speed and strength last season, was all over the field and embarrassed Colts left tackle Tony Ugoh in his first start since moving to right defensive end. Peppers recorded a sack, a forced fumble and a hurry that led Jim Sorgi to throw an interception on the first two series.

Williams turned both turnovers into touchdowns runs for a 14-0 lead barely three minutes into the game.

"He's all the way back," linebacker Thomas Davis said of Peppers. "You can say something was wrong with him, but he hasn't missed a beat this year."

Delhomme has looked fully recovered from ligament-replacement surgery in practice, but threw only one pass in his preseason debut, an incompletion.

Instead, the Panthers turned to Williams on both of their short drives after the turnovers. Williams carried nine times for 55 yards and two TDs.

"He ran great. He broke tackles," Delhomme said. "I think this year we will be able to see for certain what DeAngelo Williams can do."

He took the early lead over rookie Jonathan Stewart in the competition for the starting job. Stewart spent the game in street clothes, another troubling sign as the first-round pick takes a long time to recover from offseason toe surgery.

"The doctors here know what they're doing," Stewart said. "I just put my trust in them."

Williams and Stewart are expected to get plenty of carries behind a line that features a different player at all five positions. Their debut was impressive as the Panthers try to return to a consistent running game that has been missing since their Super Bowl season in 2003.

"I think we made great moves in the offseason," center Ryan Kalil said. "Coach Fox and (general manager) Marty Hurney did a great job of bringing in guys who are big. We talked about beefing up the offensive line."

A balanced offense could bring more opportunities for the Panthers' top playmaker, the volatile Smith. Just over a week after Smith broke cornerback Ken Lucas' nose in a fight in practice and was suspended for the first two regular-season games, Smith made an impressive leaping catch for a 19-yard gain before his abbreviated night ended.

Even Dwayne Jarrett, who had a difficult rookie season and was mocked by Smith late last year, had three catches for 43 yards. Twice he held onto passes from backup Matt Moore after being hit hard.

"The offensive line did a great job in protection. The quarterback went through his progressions and I was wide open," Jarrett said. "I just made the play. It felt great, but we're still trying to get better."

The teamwork angle was being worked by many players after the marathon game ended late Saturday night with John Kasay's 46-yard field goal with 3:53 left in overtime.

But there's reason to be cautious in the praise. Five defensive starters missed the game, with the secondary especially hard hit with injuries in training camp. Lucas still needs to return from surgery on his nose, and the offense must prove it can be consistent.

Last year, the Panthers went on an 81-yard touchdown drive in their first preseason game against the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. They looked awful the next week in Philadelphia, a sign of things to come.

On Thursday, the Panthers visit the Eagles again.

"Last year we went up to Philly and we laid an egg. We were awful," Delhomme said. "So we have to go back to work."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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