Titans bump Panthers from unbeaten class


Photo by Rick Harris
Titans receiver Drew Bennett makes a difficult sideline catch.

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR STAFF
wholtsclaw@starhq.com
CHARLOTTE, NC -- The Cinderella team of the first half of the NFL season got a swift kick in the face from its big bad neighbor.
Coming into hostile territory, the Tennessee Titans were expected to put up a close battle against the NFC South leading Carolina Panthers; however, Ericsson Stadium witnessed a first-half fury and quick domination.
Backed behind two big special teams plays early, Tennessee pulled away for a 37-17 victory.
"When you play a club like the Panthers that has obvious strengths, our philosophy was to try to get up early and make them one dimensional," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher. "I'm very proud of these guys."
"We didn't play smart, tough or fast football," said Carolina coach John Fox. "We turned the ball over, and they scored 14 points in the kicking game with two errors. We are too good of a football team to do that."
Tennessee's defense shut down Carolina's rushing attack, giving Stephen Davis and company a mere 44 yards.
It gave Jake Delhomme room for a successful 362-yard throwing day despite the constant pressure.
"We set the tempo with the special teams, then our defense swarmed to the ball and made big plays," Fisher added. "Fortunately we got up and now our goal is 6-2."
"We came out and tried to run it, but we kept getting caught," said Delhomme. "We'll bounce back. We expected be 6-0 after this game, but we're not."


Photo by Rick Harris
Panthers receiver Steve Smith runs past defensive back Andre Dyson of the Titans.

Tennessee (5-2) opened with a bang on the opening kickoff as Carolina's Brad Hoover fumbled the return to the Titans' Ray Wells.
It only took the Titans five plays to find the end zone as McNair used a big 21-yard pass play to Drew Bennett before calling his own number with a seven-yard romp to paydirt.
Carolina (5-1) ran into a defensive machine at the beginning of the game and quickly punted after a three-and-out.
Eddie George pulled away with two solid runs before Tennessee was forced to punt, or so the Panthers thought.
In a weird three-group formation, Titan backup quarter Billy Volek faked a punt and set up Eddie Berlin for a 50-yard scoring strike to give Tennessee a quick 14-0 lead.
Another defensive stop put Tennessee back in decent scoring position again, but it was stopped just short after a fake field goal pass.
Carolina followed with some success on the ground behind Davis. Delhomme hit Smith with two passes to set up John Kasay with a 53-yard field goal.
Tennessee returned the favor with a key completion to Tyrone Callico and a McNair 22-yard scramble before Bennett made another spectacular catch -- this time a 22-yard grab for a score, making it 27-3 at the half.
Penalties and good defense labeled much of the third quarter, where nothing really got going until Delhomme found Mushin Muhammad for a 60-yard toss. However, Carolina fell short again as Juqua Thomas nailed Delhomme in the backfield, forcing a fumble to teammate James Atkins.
McNair proceeded to light it up to Mason and Bennett, giving Anderson a 34-yard field goal to begin the final frame.
The Panthers lit it up on the very next play as Delhomme found Smith with a 67-yard touchdown strike to pull within 20 points.
Carolina continued its success on defense, as Julius Peppers forced a McNair fumble. But things went from sweet to sour in a matter of minutes for the Panthers, with Jevon Kearse forcing a fumble and Keith Bullock returning it 32 yards to paydirt to make it 37-10.
"That was a hustle play," said Kearse. "I didn't know the ball came loose."
The Panthers eventually scored again when Delhomme found Nick Goings in the end zone with an eight-yard pass with less than two minutes to go.
"First of all, as a defense, we set out to stop their running game and we wanted to knock Jake (Delhomme) around so we could get some of Rodney Peete," added Kearse.
"Second of all, we heard all we wanted out of their defensive line and all those dollar signs, which I'm trying to get some myself with a new contract," he joked. "After what we did today, I thought we did a good job of it."
McNair finished with 192 throwing and 30 rushing for the Titans, who were led with 97 yards receiving from Bennett.
"Our intention was to come out and score fast and see if they could come from behind and give us some competition," said McNair. "I think all three phases played well today and it was going to take that coming in here."
Carolina's Davis only gained 20 yards on 11 carries, which was a big goal of the defense.
"When his plays were coming, we were shooting our gaps and he got frustrated," said Keith Bullock.
Despite all the positives in the game for Tennessee, there is still a need to get some things out of the rushing game as the offense has steadily relied on the pass.
"It's been a smooth transition," Derrick Mason said. "We've been able to get a lot out of our passing game; we've just got to work and get our run game going."
The Titans go on the road next week for their first divisional battle, against Jacksonville, before taking the week off and coming home for a crucial contest against the Miami Dolphins.
Carolina, after its first loss, faces a critical road stretch in New Orleans and Houston before hosting Tampa Bay in a rematch of their big upset earlier in the season.
"I had no visions of going undefeated," Fox added. "I didn't want to lose a game like that. We go into every game expecting to win and doing everything we can to win."
"The reality is that it doesn't happen much. We didn't play well enough for us to win. We've got some things to work on. We've got a lot of work to do."