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Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said he had to walk away after watching film of the Carolina Panthers’ defense.
On Sunday, the Buccaneers coach will see why the Panthers’ have frustrated so many opponents this season when Carolina looks to create further separation atop the NFC South.
The Panthers (4-1) lead the division thanks to one of the NFL’s best defenses, which has held opponents to five touchdowns the last four games and 268.6 yards per game overall—fourth-best in the NFL.
Carolina hasn’t allowed a touchdown in its last nine quarters, shutting out the Kansas City Chiefs 34-0 last Sunday after limiting the Atlanta Falcons to three field goals in a 24-9 victory on Sept. 28. Still, defensive end Julius Peppers doesn’t think the team’s done anything special yet.
“We’re taking care of the things we should be taking care of going into the sixth week of the season,” said Peppers, who got his third sack of the year Sunday to surpass the 2 1/2 he had in his abysmal 2007. “I only see us getting better from here.”
While Peppers might not be impressed, Gruden said he was after watching film.
“I had to turn the film off and go for a walk,” he said. “I got a little nervous, you know what I mean?”
Gruden has good reason to be. Last Sunday, the Chiefs were held to 127 yards of total offense—35 on the ground. Larry Johnson joined Michael Turner, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte and LaDainian Tomlinson as leading rushers who have failed to gain 100 yards against the Panthers.
It helps that they were backed by a solid offensive effort by DeAngelo Williams, who rushed for a season-high 123 yards and two touchdowns, and Jake Delhomme was 14-of-22 for 236 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
The 4-1 start is Carolina’s best since going 5-0 in 2003, when the Panthers lost to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Panthers returned to the playoffs in 2005, losing in the NFC title game, but went 15-17 the last two years and failed to make the postseason.
While the defense has received much of the attention, coach John Fox also credits a big part of the turnaround to Delhomme.
Delhomme, who missed the final 13 games last season to undergo ligament-replacement surgery in his elbow, has thrown five touchdowns against only two interceptions, and is ninth in the NFL with 1,096 passing yards
“I don’t think we wanted to be 8-8 two years ago or 7-9 last year. The reality is we didn’t have a quarterback a year ago,” Fox said. “Those things happen. … When you can’t throw the ball it’s rough.”
While the revival of Delhomme and the work of the defense gives the Panthers reason to be optimistic about the future, the Buccaneers (3-2) aren’t even sure who will be starting at quarterback on Sunday when they try to bounce back after having their three-game winning streak snapped.
Brian Griese was knocked out of Tampa Bay’s 16-13 loss to Denver in the third quarter last Sunday with a swollen right elbow. Griese was 13-of-19 for 88 yards before he was replaced by Jeff Garcia, who went 13-of-17 for 93 yards and a touchdown.
Griese had started all three of Tampa Bay’s wins, throwing four touchdowns and six interceptions after taking over in Week 2 for Garcia, who was struggling with injuries suffered in the preseason.
Gruden wouldn’t commit to a starter and said it will be a day-to-day situation.
“We’re going to address the quarterback situation once we get all the facts,” he told the Buccaneers’ official Web site. “Obviously, health is going to be an issue. I thought Jeff did do some good things (Sunday). His health has been an issue, and his return to health is also something that we’re excited about.”
Garcia started 13 games for Tampa Bay in 2007, throwing 13 touchdowns, four interceptions and averaging 187.7 passing yards. The Buccaneers went 9-7 last season, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay and Carolina split their two meetings last season with each winning on the road. The Panthers have won five straight at Raymond James Stadium.