Tampa Bay (2-6) at Carolina (4-4)

Partly Cloudy Currently: Charlotte, NC
Temp: 68° F
  • Game info: 8:30 pm EST Mon Nov 13, 2006
  • TV: ESPN
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The Carolina Panthers have had two weeks to think about their most recent collapse.

The Panthers look to get the second half of their season started on the right foot when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night.

The Panthers (4-4) blew a 14-0 first-quarter lead and allowed Dallas to score 25 points in the final period in their 35-14 defeat to the Cowboys on Oct. 29. Carolina, picked by many to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season, has held a fourth-quarter lead in seven of its eight games, but lost three of those contests.

“When coaches told us that stat, I’m sure every jaw in the room dropped,” safety Mike Minter said. “I don’t think we all realized we were leading seven games of the eight in the fourth quarter. Historically, we’ve been a fourth-quarter team that knows how to finish.”

Carolina’s defense, expected to be among the best in the league, has been part of the problem. The Panthers rank 21st in the league in rushing defense and 20th in pass defense, and their vaunted line has struggled at times to pressure the opposing quarterback.

Defensive end Julius Peppers is tied for third in the NFL with eight sacks, but didn’t record any in consecutive losses to Dallas and Cincinnati.

“We have to block better, we have to tackle better, we have to execute better and make plays,” coach John Fox said.

Carolina’s offense has also been disappointing, ranking last in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage. The Panthers are 26th in the NFL with 94.1 rushing yards per game, and starting running back DeShaun Foster is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry.

The team could get a boost Monday if rookie running back DeAngelo Williams returns after missing the last three games with a sprained right ankle.

“Going back to giving them a spark, hopefully. That’s what I’m here for,” said Williams, averaging 5.3 yards per carry in five games as Foster’s backup.

Star receiver Steve Smith ranks seventh in the league with 631 receiving yards despite missing the first two games with a thigh injury. Smith, however, dropped two passes and muffed a punt return against the Cowboys.

Keyshawn Johnson, acquired in the offseason to complement Smith, also dropped a potential touchdown pass in the third quarter of that game.

“We have a talented football team, one of the best in the National Football League,” Johnson said. “I would take our team over any team in the league with the players we have. But, for whatever reason, we’re not doing so good.”

Fox was as upset as he has been during his five years as Carolina’s coach after the loss to Dallas, apologizing to “all the people who paid for tickets.”

“Hopefully with the bye coming that will give us a chance to get healthy and maybe find some guys who can finish games,” he said.

Still, Johnson said that the Panthers still have high hopes for this season.

“Is the Super Bowl over? Is it over? It’s not over,” Johnson said. “There’s all this Super Bowl hype, but we didn’t ask you to give us that. We didn’t ask you to put us on the cover of magazines. That was your decision.

“We are trying to do this for ourselves, we aren’t trying to do it for anyone else. As long as our goal is the same, is to get to the playoffs. Let’s just get there (to the playoffs) and then all bets are off.”

The Buccaneers (2-6) had an even more disappointing first half. Their defense, which allowed the fewest yards in the league last season, is 22nd in that category this year. The offense, led by rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, ranks last in the NFC in total offense and is second-to-last in rushing.

Running back Cadillac Williams is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and was held to 39 yards on 12 attempts in Sunday’s 31-14 loss to New Orleans. He rushed for 1,178 yards as a rookie last year.

“Right now, we are not the juggernaut, offensively, that I think we want to be or we’re going to be. I really have confidence that we’re going to continue to get better,” coach Jon Gruden said. “Defensively, we gave up too many big plays. I don’t understand it. I really don’t.”

Tampa Bay has scored just seven points in the first quarter this season and fell behind 17-0 against the Saints.

The Buccaneers have dropped six of their last seven against the Panthers, including a 26-24 defeat on Sept. 24. Johnson had seven catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns in his first trip to Tampa Bay since spending four seasons with the Bucs—a tenure that included a Super Bowl title in 2002 and ended with Johnson being deactivated for the final six games of the 2003 season when he and Gruden couldn’t get along.

Gradkowski has replaced Chris Simms, who had his spleen removed after taking several hard hits in the loss to the Panthers and has not played since.

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