Carolina's offensive line just hitting its stride

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If it looked like the Carolina Panthers' offensive line played the perfect game Monday night, think again.

The good news for the Panthers is they rushed for 299 yards in a 38-23 victory over Tampa Bay and their offensive line may have not hit its peak. Seriously.

"The best part about it is even with all the success, all the stats and all the touchdowns we got tonight, there's still a lot of room for improvement,'' center Ryan Kalil said. "We came out against a really good defense and did what we did and we know there's room to keep getting better.''

Think about what Kalil's saying and it makes a lot of sense. Carolina's offensive line really hasn't played together very much. Kalil and right tackle Jeff Otah each missed significant time with injuries and the Panthers were forced to shuffle in reserves Geoff Hangartner and Jeremy Bridges. It's only been in the last three games the intended starting offensive line has gotten back to being together.

Kalil and Otah both missed an earlier loss to Tampa Bay, a game that Tampa Bay's defense dominated.

"It was really embarrassing,'' left guard Travelle Wharton said. "40 yards rushing or whatever. They really put it to us.''

The Panthers really put it to the Bucs this time around and the offensive line deserves most of the credit. DeAngelo Williams carried 19 times for 186 yards and two touchdowns and Jonathan Stewart had 115 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.

The Panthers (10-3) pushed past the Bucs (9-4) to take control of first place in the NFC South and it's because Carolina pushed Tampa Bay all around at the line of scrimmage. The stamp on it all was a four-play, 90-yard drive in the middle of the fourth quarter. The Panthers ran on all four downs and built a 31-17 lead.

Carolina's running game was so good late in the game the Panthers attempted only two passes in the fourth quarter. That was precisely what the Panthers were hoping to build up front when they blew up their offensive line after last season.

"It's kind of what we're built around,'' coach John Fox said. "Props to [general manager] Marty Hurney, [director of scouting] Don Gregory and the personnel department. I think we got bigger and more physical up front and those two backs are pretty special. We've got the people to do it and now it's going to be if we can do it consistently moving forward.''

After two non-winning seasons, the Panthers felt they had to get more physical up front. They let guard Mike Wahle and center Justin Hartwig, a pair of high-priced former free agents, go. They then assembled an offensive line that wouldn't feature any of the regular starters from last year's line in the same spot.

The Panthers took Wharton, who played left tackle last season, and moved him inside to guard. They took veteran right tackle Jordan Gross, the team's best offensive lineman, and put him at left tackle. They brought in Keydrick Vincent as a free agent and he won a training camp battle for the right guard job.

The biggest piece of all might have come when the Panthers, after drafting Stewart, traded back into the first round to draft Otah out of Pittsburgh. They also took a bit of a leap of faith on Kalil, who had played only sparingly as a rookie last year, and made him the centerpiece of the line.

The injuries may have slowed the line a bit early on, but everything was clicking against the Bucs.

"I don't think Jeff and I by ourselves make that much of a difference,'' Kalil said. "But the rhythm and continuity of having the same guys in there is the biggest part. It was rough early on with not having a lot of stability. But these last couple of games have helped us get in a rhythm. When you get comfortable as a group, you know what the call is going to be and don't have to call it, you can play a lot faster and do what we did tonight.''

The Panthers totally dominated up front. They caught a bit of a break because Tampa Bay defensive tackle Jovan Haye was out with a knee injury. His replacement, Ryan Sims, showed why he was a first-round flop with Kansas City. The Panthers consistently drove Sims off the ball. In the process, they also gave the other starting defensive tackle, veteran Chris Hovan, a tough time.

Williams went over 1,000 yards for the season and became the first Carolina running back since Stephen Davis in 2003 to reach that milestone. Think about this for a second: 2003 was Carolina's Super Bowl season.

With the New York Giants only a game ahead in the battle for the top seed in the NFC and the offensive line suddenly playing extremely well, anything is possible. The Panthers, who host Denver in Week 15, travel to New York to play the Giants on Dec. 21.

"People remember what you do in December,'' Fox said. "This was a big stage. I like the way our guys met this challenge.''

If Carolina's offensive line keeps getting better, people might remember what the Panthers do in January -- and February.