If you’re looking for someone to blame for the eight sacks and 12 hits that Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took during Sunday’s loss to Minnesota, there’s plenty to go around.
An Observer film analysis showed all five offensive linemen gave up sacks or hits on Newton, who exacerbated matters by holding the ball too long on at least four of those plays.
Left tackle Michael Oher allowed three sacks, including one in the fourth quarter that came on a play after Oher was called for holding.
But it was an across-the-board failure that resulted in Newton getting sacked the second-most times in his career. The reigning league MVP was sacked nine times in a 45-21 loss to Philadelphia two years ago.
Receivers were too slow in some of their longer routes and failed to gain separation from the Vikings’ defensive backs. Running back Fozzy Whittaker blew a blocking assignment, allowing safety Harrison Smith to come free on a blitz.
And offensive coordinator Mike Shula called too many vertical passes -- the slow-developing plays that Minnesota linebacker Chad Greenway said gave Vikings defenders time to go after Newton in the pocket.
It all added up to an ugly offensive performance in the 22-10 loss, the Panthers’ first at home since Nov. 16, 2014.
“We’ve just got to stay focused, go back to the drawing board and get back to work,” Oher said. “It’s a long season ahead of us. Everything that happened, we can get better from.”
The Panthers’ pass protection was solid early in the game, but penalties put the offense in some unfavorable down-and-distances.
Carolina started from its 4 late in the first quarter after a 62-yard punt by Jeff Locke and a holding call on Pantherscornerback James Bradberry. The Panthers looked to have escaped the hole on a 20-yard run by Cameron Artis-Payne.
But another holding penalty -- on tight end Ed Dickson -- negated Artis-Payne’s gain. Two plays later, defensive end Danielle Hunter sacked Newton in the end zone for a safety.
Hunter blasted Oher, who tried to fire out almost like a run block but ended up on his backside. Left guard Andrew Norwell tried to clean up Oher’s mess, but Hunter beat Norwell, too.
Defensive tackle Linval Joseph collapsed the pocket on center Ryan Kalil, and dived to trip up Newton for a loss of 4. Newton tweaked his left ankle and was replaced by Derek Anderson for a play.
It’s the same ankle doctors repaired before the 2014 in a ligament-tightening procedure. Newton seemed off the rest of the game following his one-play break, but he and Panthers coach Ron Rivera both said the ankle was not an issue.
More problematic was Newton’s decision to hold the ball too long in the pocket, something color analyst Ronde Barber noted a couple times during the FOX broadcast.
Aggressive pass rush
The Panthers led 10-8 at the half and Newton had only been hit or sacked four times.
But Minnesota scored on its opening drive of the second half to take the lead, which allowed Vikings coach Mike Zimmer to become more aggressive with his pass-rush schemes.
Zimmer, a longtime defensive coordinator, used two safety blitzes with Smith. He also had linebacker Anthony Barr serve a spy on Newton, resulting in one of four sacks by the Vikings in the fourth quarter.
“That’s the way it is,” Oher said. “Once you get behind in this league (against) a good football team, a good coach and a good defense like that, it’s going to be tough. They can start do what they do a little bit more.”
Oher said the Vikings did a good job disguising their pressures.
With the Panthers facing a fourth-and-10 with 2 minutes, 29 seconds remaining, the Vikings brought seven defenders to the line of scrimmage before dropping one in coverage. But the look confused the Panthers, who let defensive end Everson Griffen come untouched.
Newton threw the ball in fullback Mike Tolbert’s direction, but defensive tackle Tom Johnson picked it off for the Vikings’ third interception.
On one of the safety blitzes, Minnesota overloaded the left side of Carolina’s line. Whittaker stayed inside, but didn’t have anyone to block as Smith came flying in to sack Newton.
Five of the Vikings’ dozen hits and sacks came on blitzes. Minnesota got to Newton five times out of its base, four-man rush, and twice reached him despite rushing just three defenders.
Shula and Kalil said penalties and other mistakes put the Panthers in obvious passing situations. Three of the fourth-quarter sacks came on first-and-19, third-and-20 and third-and-9.
“We didn’t do a good enough job staying ahead of the chains and just played undisciplined football,” Kalil said. “That’s what beat us offensively.”