Home, Sweet Home

'New' Panthers whip Falcons

The Carolina Panthers unveiled a new home and a new swagger Sunday afternoon at Ericsson Stadium.

No longer is Carolina a one-dimensional team that relies heavily on its defense. Against Atlanta, a more aggressive Carolina mixed a mature performance from quarterback Kerry Collins with the slashing runs of rookie Tshimanga Biakabutuka in a 29-6 blowout of the Falcons.

The Panthers, unimaginative on offense in 1995, ran a flea-flicker for 30 yards and faked into the line for a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Wesley Walls.

Overall, Carolina wheeled up and down the field for 315 yards. John Kasay kicked five field goals, including one of 53 yards, as Carolina scored on seven possessions.

"We've upgraded," Collins said. "That's going to show in what we do on the field. With Wesley and Tshimanga, we're better. I don't think there's any doubt about it."

The defense is even more threatening than a year ago. Linebacker Lamar Lathon once sacked quarterback Jeff George and then leaned over to tell him: "I'm going to keep coming back. I'm going to get you."

Lathon kept his word, with three sacks. Kevin Greene, the other half of an outside linebacking corps that calls itself "Salt and Pepper," had two as Carolina dumped George seven times.

"We're a much more mature team than we were at this point last year," Lathon said. "It's just full speed ahead from now on. The sky's the limit."

The 29 points Carolina scored eclipsed the previous franchise high of 27 and the offense flexed its new speed and power from the beginning. Michael Bates returned the opening kickoff 35 yards and the Panthers zipped toward the goal from there.

Biakabutuka carried four times in a nine-play drive and Collins hit all of four his passes. Receiver Mark Carrier got the first touchdown in Ericsson history when he snatched Collins' pass at the 5 and dashed into the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown.

Atlanta, meanwhile, sputtered on offense throughout the game. The Panthers usually blitz but found they could pressure George with just a four-man rush. By doing that, Carolina could leave seven players back in zone coverage to keep the Falcons from getting many yards after the catch.

"That was the key for us," linebacker Sam Mills said. "We didn't have to bring everybody. Guys like [Terance] Mathis and [Eric] Metcalf, when they catch the football, it's hard to get them to the ground."

George completed just 16 of 35 for 215 yards. The Falcons had scored touchdowns in 26 straight games, but their only points came on 46- and 33-yard field goals by Morten Andersen.

"Our defense did an outstanding job," Carolina coach Dom Capers said. "Anytime you can keep this offense out of the end zone, you've done a good job.

"I thought our offense was very efficient, particularly in the first half. We were patient, taking what they gave us. We had one turnover, I believe, on a blind sack."

All wasn't perfect. The game was a sellout, but attendance was only 69,522 at a stadium that seats 72,635. And center Curtis Whitley (left knee) and Mark Thomas (shoulder) suffered injuries. When they will return is uncertain.

Punter Rohn Stark, signed this week to solidify the punting game, averaged just 35.0 yards on his three punts. And Atlanta's Jamal Anderson hurt Carolina on the ground with 14 carries for 108 yards.

But the positives far outweighed the negatives.

Biakabutuka didn't pile up big yards, just 69, but he ran hard and showed quickness.

And halfback Winslow Oliver, a third-round pick from New Mexico, breezed through the Falcons for 37 yards on six carries and returns three punts for 63 yards.

Carrier had six catches for 78 yards, Willie Green four for 57 and Walls four for 31.

All in all, not a bad debut.

"I think we're pretty good," tackle Blake Brockermeyer said.

"We've got a chance to do special things this year."

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