As they sifted through their red-zone struggles from Sunday’s 13-9 loss to Seattle, Panthers coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula said a number of factors caused the offense to bog down close to the goal line.
The most obvious failing – and the first one Rivera mentioned – was Kelvin Benjamin’s dropped pass in the end zone during the Panthers’ second possession.
While Benjamin’s was the most glaring mistake, there were plenty of others revealed during the day-after film review.
“It’s hard to put your finger on one thing or another,” Shula said Monday.
The Panthers drove inside Seattle’s 15 on their first three possessions – making it as far as the 1 on the second drive – and came away with no touchdowns.
They settled for two Graham Gano field goals on the first two possessions, before the third one ended with quarterback Cam Newton’s fumble on a botched zone-read exchange with running back Jonathan Stewart.
The Panthers are 28th in the league in red-zone offense, having scored touchdowns on just 46.2 percent (12 of 26) of their drives inside the opponent’s 20.
“We’ve been close. We’ve just got to finish things,” Rivera said. “We get in the red zone, you’d like to score touchdowns. That’s the one thing that has to happen. I’ve said before if you don’t score touchdowns on teams it’s hard to win.”
The Panthers ran 13 plays at or inside the Seahawks’ 20. Shula called 11 running plays and two passes, although Newton was forced to scramble on one of the passes after linebacker Bruce Irvin beat left tackle Byron Bell with an inside spin move.
The other pass was the drop by Benjamin on second-and-goal from the 3.
Tight end Greg Olsen, who entered the game as the Panthers’ leading receiver, has been a reliable red-zone target for Newton the past three-plus seasons. Olsen’s number was not called in the red zone, though, and he was targeted only three times on the day.
Rivera said the Seahawks rolled a safety toward Olsen in the red zone.
Shula said Olsen, who had one catch for 16 yards, was at times kept in as an extra blocker to help an injury-depleted offensive line.
“Greg’s so valuable for us and sometimes you have to use him to help in protection,” Shula said. “That’s kind of a double-edged sword because you want him out there.”
Olsen said the play selection – the Panthers had 31 rushes and 22 passes – played a part in his limited targets.
“We had a lot of success early running the ball. … In the passing game, we only completed 12 balls. So it was obviously a run-heavy day,” Olsen said. “And some of the stuff we had dialed up, sometimes you don’t get the look you’re looking for.”
The Panthers picked up two first downs in the red zone and had the benefit of two Seahawks penalties – a 5-yard offside call and a 12-men-on-the-field flag after Benjamin’s drop that gave the Panthers third-and-goal from the 1.
Shula called a running play to the right side for Stewart, who was to follow the lead blocks of pulling left guard Andrew Norwell and pulling tight end Ed Dickson. But right tackle David Foucault was pushed into the backfield, and neither Norwell nor Dickson could get to a defender to block.
Stewart ran into the back of Norwell, changed directions and was dropped for a 7-yard loss.
“We moved it down there and got first downs. Usually when you make first downs in the red zone, you’re scoring touchdowns,” Shula said, adding the Panthers were “just a little bit off” on a couple of red-zone plays.
Though Seattle entered the game ranked next-to-last in red-zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 72.2 percent (13 of 18) of opponents’ drives inside the 20, Shula said the Seahawks were tough Sunday.
“They mix in their three-deep zone and then their man coverage. They’re good up front. They’re physical,” Shula said. “So it’s hard. They play the run well down there.”
Besides having to cobble together a line after injuries to guards Trai Turner and Amini Silatolu, the Panthers also have been without fullbacks Mike Tolbert and Richie Brockel.
Tolbert has a hairline fracture in his leg and is eligible to come off the short-term injured reserve Week 13 at Minnesota. Brockel is out for the season with an ankle injury.
With no fullbacks on the roster, the Panthers are using backup tight ends Dickson and Brandon Williams in that role.
Williams missed a block on Newton’s third-down run that was stopped for no gain at the Seahawks’ 9. Newton picked up the first down with a 2-yard gain on a fourth-down sneak.
It isn’t just Tolbert’s blocking the Panthers miss though.
Tolbert was the leading receiver among the Panthers’ running backs the past two years, and he had 12 rushing touchdowns during that span.
“Mike’s a unique guy where he can be your fullback. But just because he’s in there doesn’t mean you’re always going to have a two-backfield set. He can come out of the backfield and catch the ball in different routes that maybe we haven’t used quite as much,” Shula said. “It gives you more guys to have to think about defensively that potentially can carry the ball.”
Stewart said the red-zone issues were a team effort. Fixing them will be, too.
“We’ve just got to make sure every play that you’re doing your job and just little things that we’ve got to correct. I think we’re slowly doing that,” he said. “It’s just that (Sunday) we came up short.”