Sunday, September 09, 2007

It Starts!



The Carolina Panthers start the regular season against the St. Louis Rams.

The Carolina Panthers (0-0), who closed last year with back-to-back road wins, open the regular season away from home for the first time since 2001 when they play the St. Louis Rams (0-0) at the Edward Jones Dome. A lot of has changed for Carolina since defeating Atlanta and New Orleans to complete the 2006 season with an 8-8 record, but a nucleus of returning players comprise the corps that will try to upend St. Louis.

Foremost are wide receiver Steve Smith and defensive end Julius Peppers, both coming off consecutive Pro Bowl seasons. A year ago, Smith missed the first two games with a hamstring injury but he still caught 83 passes for 1,106 yards. His last reception at St. Louis was a memorable 69-yard touchdown to give Carolina a 29-23 overtime victory in the 2003 NFC Divisional Playoffs. Peppers, whose 34.5 sacks are second in the NFL over the last three seasons, anchors a defense that has ranked in the top 10 four of the last five years. He is coming off a 13-sack season in which he also forced three fumbles and recovered two.

There are also a number of other familiar faces:

* Jake Delhomme, starting his fifth season at quarterback.
* DeShaun Foster, returning as the starting running back.
* Mike Rucker, coming back off knee surgery to start his 92nd game at defensive end.
* Jordan Gross, starting his 65th consecutive game at tackle.
* John Kasay, the last original Panther, again handling the kicking duties.

However, there are significant changes as well. Not starting at safety for the first time since Week Two of the 2001 season is Mike Minter, who retired during the training camp. Last year's second leading receiver, Keyshawn Johnson, has also retired, leaving Keary Colbert and Drew Carter to handle the receiving duties opposite Smith as they did in 2005.

The additions include the return of tackle Travelle Wharton, center Justin Hartwig and linebacker Dan Morgan, all of whom were lost for the year with injuries in the opening game last season. Morgan is joined at linebacker by first-round draft choice Jon Beason, who enjoyed a productive preseason and is one of 10 rookies on the youthful Carolina roster. Aside from Kasay and long snapper Jason Kyle, guard Mike Wahle is the only player on the Panthers roster with 10 years of NFL experience.

Only a dozen players remain from the roster that last played at St. Louis, and head coach John Fox says that the newcomers are in for a substantial challenge.

"We are playing a very good football team at their place in the regular season opener," said Fox. "Any time you go inside you know it is going to be loud, and given the circumstances, this will be a very difficult environment."

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