The Carolina Panthers have to be among the NFL’s best teams at marching down the field and eating the clock on their opening drives.
But they are without argument among the worst at finishing those drives in the end zone.
The Panthers’ lack of staying power was on display again early in Sunday’s 34-13 loss to New Orleans.
With quarterback Cam Newton mostly getting the ball to running backs Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers ran 15 plays, consumed nearly nine minutes and drove 61 yards before settling for a Graham Gano field goal.
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If that sounds familiar, it should.
The Panthers followed the same script against Buffalo in Week 2, but managed to eke out a 9-3 victory without the benefit of a touchdown.
They weren’t as fortunate against Drew Brees and the Saints, who matched Carolina’s field goals with touchdowns to cruise to a divisional victory.
More than Newton’s three interceptions or another injury to a key offensive player, it was the stalling out on the first two series against the Saints that most irked Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
“I think a lot of our problems stemmed from that,” Rivera said Monday. “On those first two drives we had opportunities to do things and we didn’t do it.”
Nothing against Gano, but Panthers tight end Ed Dickson said it’s deflating when a long, promising drive produces only three points.
“Confidence-wise, it kind of takes a little air out of you,” Dickson said. “To not punch it in early, you put yourself in a hole, where years past we’re punching it in. ... We’ve got to get back to how we used to do it.”
Through three games, the Panthers are tied with Cincinnati and Miami as the league’s worst red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns on only 25 percent (2 of 8) of their trips inside the 20.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said there’s not been one thing plaguing the Panthers when they get in scoring range.
The first two drives against the Saints fell apart because of a mental error and a missed block.
▪ On third-and-4 from the New Orleans’ 8, the pass protection called for the left side of the line to slide to the left. Matt Kalil, the $55.5 million left tackle, stepped right, giving defensive end Cam Jordan a clear shot at Newton.
The sack brought out Gano and the field goal unit.
“He’s a veteran guy. He is new to the system, unfortunately,” Rivera said of Kalil. “It’s one of those things I think as times goes we don’t make that type of mistake. Or I’d like to believe we don’t.”
▪ On their next drive, the Panthers drove to the Saints’ 28, where they faced a third-and-6 early in the second quarter. Newton threw a tunnel screen to rookie Curtis Samuel, who had Kalil and left guard Andrew Norwell pulling outside to block for him.
But before they could get to the edge, slot receiver Russell Shepard missed his block on cornerback Ken Crawley, who dropped Samuel for a 2-yard loss.
Enter Gano. Again.
The field goals – combined with Brees’ shredding of the Panthers’ defense – left Carolina in an early 14-6 hole. And with the sore-shouldered Newton missing his top two targets in tight end Greg Olsen and wideout Kelvin Benjamin, who left late in the first quarter with a knee injury, that deficit was too much to overcome.
Shula tried to stay positive, despite the fact his offense has produced only three touchdowns. He’s pleased with the play of rookies Christian McCaffrey, who had his first 100-yard receiving game, and Samuel, as well as the tight ends.
“If you can believe this or not ... after watching the tape I’m more encouraged than I was at this time last week,” Shula told reporters Monday.
But the Panthers’ offense has yet to display even a hint of rhythm or consistency behind Newton, whose timing is still off because of the practice time he continues to miss following shoulder surgery.
Newton’s three interceptions and handful of overthrows – including two on deep balls to Devin Funchess – left him with a quarterback rating of 43.8, the third-worst of his career.
And while Newton is completing more passes (61.4 percent) than he did in 2015, when he finished at a career low 52.9 percent, he’s not hitting any of the long throws that used to be his trademark.
Through Sunday’s game, Newton was among the lowest-ranked starting quarterbacks in terms of passer rating.
Rivera said he’d like to see Shula and Newton get Dickson more involved after he was targeted just once against the Saints.
“I was open a few times, but Cam makes great reads,” said Dickson, who caught one pass for 8 yards. “We’ve just got to get our timing and everything down pat. We’ll be all right.”
Amid all the negatives for the Panthers’ offense against New Orleans, there was one bit of good news: Rivera said the MRI on Benjamin’s knee showed no structural damage, meaning he shouldn’t be sidelined for a prolonged stretch.
“That’s a positive. That’s one thing we can say,” Dickson said. “But we need him. We need everybody on this team.”