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Offensive lines struggle on opening weekend

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With 3:34 remaining in the second quarter of Sunday's game here, Carolina Panthers left offensive tackle Travelle Wharton, already abused by Atlanta Falcons right defensive end John Abraham, limped from the field with what was announced as a sprained knee, but which could turn out to be much worse once team orthopedists begin analyzing the MRI results.

The departure of Wharton precipitated a musical chairs reshuffling of the Carolina blocking unit, with left guard Mike Wahle switching over to tackle and Geoff Hangartner moving into his guard spot. Summarily whipped by Abraham for a 12-yard sack on the final play of the first half, Wahle subsequently went back to his guard niche for the start of the third quarter. The Carolina coaching staff, scrambling for an antidote to staunch the Atlanta pass rush, used right tackle Jordan Gross on the left side for the second half. Todd Fordham moved into the right tackle slot.

The result: Abraham ran around Gross for an 8-yard sack.

OK, so it was just one game on the NFL's opening weekend schedule, but the Carolina-Atlanta matchup seemed to serve as a microcosm, with Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme gesticulating wildly at his overmatched offensive linemen every time he went down, for what transpired around the league.

While the trends may not hold, these two realities emerged from the first week of play: The sack is back. And because of retirements, injuries, ineptitude and the implementation of new pass protection schemes that have yet to take root in some precincts, some offensive line units are ill prepared to deal with defenses' all-out attacks on the pocket.

"I mean, 'Abe,' he had their left tackle, no matter who they had out there, spinning around like a revolving door," said Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall, referring to Abraham's tour de force performance in which the Falcons' defensive end had two sacks, numerous quarterback pressures and a pair of forced fumbles. "Those are game changing plays, man. You know how much energy it creates when those guys up front are sacking the quarterback like that?"

Probably not enough, we're guessing, to end the country's reliance on Middle Eastern oil. But if defenses keep sacking people at the rate they did in the first 14 games of the season, with two contests still to be played on Monday night, quarterbacks are either going to go nuclear or to the hospital.

There were 71 sacks in those 14 games, and of the 28 starting quarterbacks, only New Orleans' Drew Brees and Eli Manning of the New York Giants didn't hit the deck at least once. Fifteen starters went down three times or more. Kansas City backup Damon Huard was sacked four times in relief of Trent Green, who was actually injured outside the pocket on a scramble, as the once-impenetrable Chiefs line surrendered seven sacks overall.

Of course, the Chiefs played without retired left tackle Willie Roaf, who was at home sitting in a rocker on the porch and apparently ignoring phone calls every time "Herm Edwards" popped up on his caller I.D.

And how about David Carr of Houston? If they ever remake the movie "Groundhog Day," producers would be wise to cast the beaten-down and beleaguered quarterback in the Bill Murray lead role. Sacked an amazing 208 times in the first four seasons of his career, Carr went down five times Sunday, smothered by a Philadelphia pass-rush that had managed only 29 sacks in 2005.

Carr was playing behind a unit that had no starters lining up in the same positions they played last season, and with a rookie, third-round draft choice Charles Spencer, at left tackle. So much for first-year Texans coach Gary Kubiak being able to do a better job than his predecessor of protecting the team's franchise quarterback. One thing you can say for Carr: He always knows whether the Reliant Stadium roof is open or closed, because he usually gets a pretty good view, staring up at it.

What pass-rushers got a good view of this weekend were quarterbacks squarely in their crosshairs. Four quarterbacks were sacked four times or more. Fifteen passers were dumped at least three times. In opening the season, defensive coordinators declared open season on their favorite prey. "It was," said Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter, who had two of the three sacks of Miami quarterback Daunte Culpepper, "like a feeding frenzy. We all wanted some dessert."

Quarterbacks had better hope such a voracious appetite doesn't extend through the entire season. Or they had better pray for improved protection in the weeks to come.

Projecting the 14 games' worth of sacks over an entire 256-game schedule would show a 9.8 percent increase over the total number of sacks from a year ago. At that pace, all the teams with only two quarterbacks on the roster might want to keep the phone numbers of some currently unemployed passers on speed dial.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.