CHARLOTTE, NC — Carolina Panthers right guard Austin Corbett can’t wait to see what tackle Taylor Moton serves at his house on Thursday night. Neither can the rest of an offensive line that, summed up best by center Bradley Bozeman, was “pissed” following Sunday’s effort in a 24-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
No matter what happens on game day, it has long been forgotten by Moton’s weekly feast for his fellow big guys — and an occasional guest, such as quarterback Sam Darnold.
The gathering to chow down on what left guard Brady Christensen estimates to be about 25 pounds of meat, in addition to other assorted side dishes, has been a bonding experience for a group that is key if Carolina (5-9) is to make a late run at the NFC South title that is up for grabs in a down year for all four teams.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8) are only one game ahead of the Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. Carolina will win the division outright if it wins its final three games, against the Detroit Lions (Saturday, 1 pm ET, Fox), the Bucs and Saints.
But eating will be the focus on Thursday, not the missed assignments and other mistakes that led to four sacks and only 21 yards rushing against the Steelers for a team that averaged 204 yards rushing the previous two games and 154.6 the previous seven.
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“Football is a game, and we love it and put a lot into it,” veteran tackle Cameron Erving said. “But life is life. It’s about relationships. We enjoy being around each other. We talk about things we could have done better sometimes, but we enjoy ourselves.
“Life is meant to be enjoyed. A lot of people spend so much time stressing and having anxiety about playing football that it holds them back.”
It’s this perspective, particularly during the holiday season, that won’t allow this group to panic after their worst performance in two months. It’s this group that gives Carolina a chance to make the playoffs despite a losing record for the fifth straight season.
“It’s such a long season and no one is going to be perfect every single game,” Corbett said. “When you have a tough game like that, there’s definitely some inward looking, but we lean on each other to get it right.”
Getting it right is what interim coach Steve Wilks has emphasized since Sunday. He understands the winning formula is built around controlling the line with the run game and taking the pressure off Darnold to make big plays.
The Panthers are 5-3 this season when averaging 4.0 yards or more per rush, including their wins against the Denver Broncos (4.02) and Seattle Seahawks (4.85) the two weeks prior to Pittsburgh, which held Carolina to a season-low 1.31 yards per rush hour.
They are 0-6 when averaging fewer than 4 yards per rush, including Sunday when their 21 yards were the fewest in a game since 2012.
“When you have done something right before, which we have, it’s just about going back and trying to recollect that,” Wilks said. “So I’m not concerned about us not being able to get back to it.”
Getting past Detroit, which has gone from 1-6 to 7-7, may be the biggest challenge. The Lions have been sneaky good against the run the last five weeks, giving up only 84 yards a game.
They gave up an average of 160 yards rushing in the nine games prior to that, three times allowing more than 200 yards.
So look for the Panthers to get back to basics, which for them often means using six or more offensive linemen. Their 59 rushes with such sets this season is tied for third most in the NFL.
Two weeks ago, in rushing for 223 yards at Seattle, they used eight offensive lineman on one play thanks to a suggestion by rookie guard Cade Mays, who ran the package known as “Arby’s” in high school.
“We have the meats,” Mays said with a laugh.
Joked offensive line coach James Campen, who’d never used eight linemen on one play before: “Now they want to name everything, for God’s sake. … It was a lot of fun for them.”
Getting eight linemen involved on one play was another bonding moment for a unit that prior to this season was a revolving door of players due to injuries and poor play. There were 13 different lineups a year ago compared to two this season.
But it’s the Thursday night pig-out sessions at Moton’s that have been the most unifying.
“I just wanted to find a way to help bring the group together and help with the chemistry,” said Moton, who began this tradition last season. “My house is more of an informal environment. We get to lay back and talk about our work and talk about our lives.”
The menus range from steak and lamb chops to salmon and shrimp, and, according to Mays, some of the best biscuits he has ever had.
Bozeman, 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, hands down gets the nod as the biggest eater. Even Bozeman voted for himself.
“I’m just gonna be honest,” he said. “I’m the biggest guy on the line, so yeah. The beef and cheddars and potato cakes and curly fries … it’s awesome.”
Moton won’t say how much this weekly feast costs, but when serving 11 or 12, he usually plans for 20 since linemen tend to eat more than quarterbacks and receivers.
“It’s my treat for the guys,” he said. “You can’t put a price on that camaraderie, building that brotherhood.”
Particularly after a loss like Sunday’s.