Gameday preview: Carolina vs. Buffalo

David Scott's Panthers three to watch

Priority 1: Run; Priority 1A: Feed Smith

Do the Panthers try to keep STEVE SMITH happy, or do they keep it on the ground today against the Bills, who have the worst run defense in the league? Probably both. Expect Carolina to pound it on the ground until Buffalo commits another defender in the box to stop it. Then JAKE DELHOMME is sure to look for Smith, who said last week he's no longer an "asset" to the team. A big day for Smith could be in the offing.

Another inexperienced backup QB

For a second consecutive week, the Panthers defense faces an inexperienced, backup quarterback. This time, it's Buffalo's RYAN FITZPATRICK, a free-agent pickup who was a part-time starter last season in Cincinnati. He will be in there for TRENT EDWARDS, who has a concussion. Defensive tackle DAMIONE LEWIS said the Panthers were surprised last week by the mobility of Tampa Bay's JOSH JOHNSON and his ability to hurt them on third downs. Fitzpatrick struggled last week against the New York Jets, completing 10 of 25 passes for 116 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Special teams depth a concern

DANTE WESLEY'S absence on special teams could be a factor today. The Panthers have struggled all season in that department - allowing a punt return and kick return for a touchdown, as well as a blocked field goal. Coach JOHN FOX has blamed injuries and inexperience for many of the problems. Without Wesley - suspended one game for his ill-timed hit of Tampa Bay's CLIFTON SMITH last week - a thin unit becomes much thinner. And if replacement KEITH LEWIS plays well, he might be somebody Fox considers keeping.


Defenses sniffing out passes

Can some of the Panthers' passing problems be traced to tipping off opposing defenses to their tendencies? Receiver MUHSIN MUHAMMAD thinks that might be the case.

"From what I've been seeing, defenses are dropping a lot more guys into coverage," Muhammad said. "I don't know if it's based on our formations, or the quarterback's drop or what kind of keys they're getting.

"But the safeties have typically been reading and then trying to drop back into coverage and reading pass. Something is giving them a pass key and they're double-teaming the pass.

"It doesn't always start off like Cover 2, but it winds up in Cover 2 or some sort of man (-to-man coverage) with Cover 2."

3rd-and-short? Call on Hoover

You don't expect to see fullback BRAD HOOVER'S name on a list with the NFL's elite running backs. But Hoover ranks fifth in the NFL since 2001 on third-and-short conversion efficiency. He's has converted on 71.4 percent of his third-and-less-than-2 runs, trailing Indianapolis' JOSEPH ADDAI (79.2), Minnesota's ADRIAN PETERSON (77.8), Miami's RONNIE BROWN (75.5) and Kansas City's LARRY JOHNSON (74.7). None have happened this season: Hoover has just one carry (that fourth-down fumble into the end zone against the Redskins).

If you think these two teams have problems - well, this is nothing. Let me take you back to the Buffalo-Carolina game of 2001, which produced one of my favorite Panther quotes.

In 2001, these two teams met in a thoroughly forgettable game in Buffalo. Carolina was 1-11. Buffalo was 1-10.

The Panthers sped out to a 24-6 lead late in the second period behind quarterback CHRIS WEINKE and a rookie wide receiver/kick returner named STEVE SMITH.

But Buffalo scored the game's last 19 points, winning 25-24 and helping ensure Carolina's horrendous 1-15 record. Panther coach GEORGE SEIFERT would be fired once the season concluded.

But Seifert was still coach at the time and he said right after blowing that 18-point lead: "The problem here is that we haven't solved the problem. And it's been an ongoing problem."

It sounded for a minute like YOGI BERRA was coaching the Panthers and, in fact, he couldn't have done worse.

You think anyone will be watching No. 89 for Carolina and No. 81 for Buffalo today?

Smith and TERRELL OWENS are both off to terrible starts. But I think both are going to see the ball more today. It's Smith who has made the most noise this month. Owens has been very low-profile, for him, anyway, in Buffalo thus far. Smith wants to be considered an "asset" again. I bet the Panthers make sure he gets a catch within their first five offensive plays today.

Although Smith certainly wants more touches, the Panthers would be nuts to veer far off the 48-run, 17-pass formula that got them a win last Sunday in Tampa Bay. Buffalo's rush defense is worst in the league. The only way DEANGELO WILLIAMS doesn't go for 100 yards today is if he gets hurt.

My prediction: Carolina 29, Buffalo 20.

- Scott Fowler