CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It was conservative, boring and, in some respects, a gamble.
But the Carolina Panthers' ball-control offense, which featured seven third-down runs (most from long distances), helped produce a 10-7 win over the Ravens yesterday at Ericsson Stadium.
"They ran the ball because it worked for them pretty well," linebacker Peter Boulware said. "So they stuck with what worked.
"I'm not going to make any excuses for our defense. [The Panthers] did a good job. Rodney Peete controlled the ball pretty well. So there is nothing we can say, but I will say this: Every week we will get better."
Such talk is as new as the eight different starters that graced the defense. The previous three seasons, the Ravens had been the league's most difficult team to run on.
But the Panthers totaled 145 yards on the ground, with 84 coming from back Lamar Smith.
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis spoke last week of how even Smith knew he could not run on the Ravens - an obvious reference to Smith's 6-yard performance in last season's first-round playoff win over Miami.
But Smith, on a different team against a different defense, was a different player. Far from spectacular, Smith was nonetheless effective and provided a solid rotation with fullback Brad Hoover and backup Nick Goings.
The Panthers doubled the Ravens in rushing.
"We had a lot of missed tackles, and any time you have a lot of missed tackles in a football game, people are going to have success against you," Lewis said.
"I think we let [Smith] be effective, missing so many tackles. I think I might have missed two. But it happens."
The Ravens missed some tackles but Smith had much room on some of the outside pitches. On back-to-back plays, Smith, known mostly as a between-the-tackles runner, rushed for 25 yards.
"They were doing a lot of crack backs, a lot of times we were over-running. Then a lot of times, myself, I was going in having an opportunity to make an open-field tackle and didn't do it," Boulware said.
The Panthers actually ran for 9 more yards than Peete threw.
"Run defense don't win you ballgames, it just makes people do other things," Lewis said. "Their passing wasn't the best, and they put 10 points on the board. That is what we live for.
"Yeah, they made some plays here and there, but getting in the end zone is the key. And they did that one time."
But one of the here-and-there plays produced a crucial first down. Up 10-7 and facing third-and-seven from the Ravens' 47 late in the fourth quarter, receiver Muhsin Muhammad took the ball on a flanker reverse and headed upfield with a convoy of blockers. The first down forced the Ravens to burn timeouts on Carolina's next two plays.
"It was a very slow-developing reverse, and some of our guys got suckered in and the Panthers broke the edge on a huge play," said Ravens coach Brian Billick.
Said Peete: "When the play was called in the huddle, I was so nervous. We got the handoff perfectly and Moose ran it. That was a big play in the ballgame; we were really excited."