A day after a dispiriting loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers coaches tried to explain how a 6-5, 245-pound wide receiver disappeared in plain sight.
Kelvin Benjamin is probably interested in hearing the explanation as well.
Benjamin entered Sunday’s game with 21 targets in the first two games, including 12 against Denver in his first game after a year-long layoff following knee surgery.
But Benjamin had only one pass thrown his way against Minnesota – a development that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton called “baffling and wowing.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said a variety of factors led to Benjamin becoming the lonesome end, not the least of which was Shula’s play-calling.
“We’ve got to find a way to get him the ball more. That starts with me,” Shula said. “But we’ve got to make sure we’re doing it in a way where we’re not just trying to force him the ball. Because teams know he’s out there and they’re going to try to take him away with two guys or roll coverage that way.”
The Vikings played a mix of coverages against Benjamin, playing him one-on-one on some plays and shading a safety toward his side of the field in other alignments.
Minnesota’s cornerbacks also used press coverage against Benjamin at times in an effort to keep him from using his big frame to shield them from the ball on underneath routes.
But it wasn’t just the Vikings’ tactics that led to Benjamin’s first game without a catch.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Newton overlooked Benjamin a couple of times when Benjamin was open. There were other plays when Newton, who was sacked eight times, didn’t have time to go through all his reads.
“The bad part is we had a couple opportunities with Kelvin to make some plays with him and we didn’t do it,” Rivera said. “The quarterback read out of it and went to his next option a couple times.
“One thing they did do with Kelvin was get up on the line of scrimmage early when he was getting his releases. He didn’t have a lot of clean releases and you could see the safety was favoring to that side. That’s part of probably why Cam made the reads he did and the decisions he made.”
Benjamin played 61 of 77 offensive snaps against the Vikings, more than any Panthers wide receiver.
Getting to Newton
Rivera pointed out that other than in the red zone, most of Benjamin’s routes are down-the-field patterns that take longer to develop. Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said Minnesota defenders thought they could get to Newton when the Panthers went to their vertical passing game.
They did, sacking Newton eight times and getting a total of 12 hits on the reigning league MVP. It was the second-most sacks Newton has taken in a game, trailing the nine sacks Philadelphia posted in a 45-21 victory in 2014.
Shula was asked why the Panthers didn’t try more quick-hitting plays in the passing game, like some of the three-step quarterback drop passes the Vikings used with Sam Bradford.
“We had a good balance, but you need to continue to that. The penalty factor hurt us. First-and-20s aren’t very fun to call. Third-and-11 pluses aren’t,” Shula said. “But there were some plays that we did hit. There were some downfield completions, too. We like to throw the ball down the field. But we also like quick game, misdirection and running the ball.”
After his big game against Denver (six catches for 91 and a touchdown), the concern was whether Newton was targeting Benjamin too much.
But he didn’t throw his way until less than three minutes were left Sunday – and that pass was broken up. Benjamin’s low for targets during his rookie season was five, which happened twice.
‘I’d probably be unhappy too’
Benjamin said after the game he wanted to go back and watch film to see what happened.
“I run routes,” he said. “That’s all I can do.”
Benjamin did not speak to reporters Monday.
Asked if Benjamin could have done more to get open, Shula said: “We all got to do a better job with what we’re doing – across the board, starting with me.”
Shula also said he understands if Benjamin wasn’t in the best of moods Monday.
“It’s totally understandable if K.B. – if it were me I’d probably be unhappy, too,” Shula said. “But we’ve got great character on this team and guys that want to do whatever they can to win.”