Carolina Panthers

Numbers lie: Despite record day on defense, Panthers’ loss came down to 3 plays

In similar fashion to how he plays football, when he recounts a game, Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers gets straight to the point and hits it on the nose.

“Nobody’s going to come rescue us right now,” he said, as the rain started coming down in Chicago and the Panthers, after suffering a 17-3 loss to the Bears, prepared to charter back to Charlotte.

“We’re in a little bit of a tough position right now with our backs against the wall, but we’ll be fine. We’re just going to continue to prepare how we have been. We believe in ourselves and we believe in the character of the guys in this room to get the job done.”

The game came down to three plays, said both Peppers and head coach Ron Rivera: Safety Eddie Jackson’s fumble return touchdown and pick-six, and the 70-yard catch-and-run by Bears running back Tarik Cohen that set up a field goal.

Remove those two takeaways, in fact, and this time it was Rivera who summed it up nicely.

“Figures lie, and liars figure,” he said.

Take the stat sheet from this game, for example.

If you didn’t see the score or Jackson’s two takeaways, you’d probably think Carolina was sitting at 5-2 on Sunday evening instead of 4-3.

First of all, without those two takeaways, the game could have, in a worst-case scenario for Carolina, been tied 3-3. The Bears only managed a field goal against a stout Panthers defense.

Carolina also limited the prolific rushing tandem of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen to 68 yards (the Panthers rushed for 108) and held Chicago to 153 total yards, compared with Carolina’s 293. That performance marked the lowest yards an opponent has accumulated against Carolina since San Francisco in 2013.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw only seven times. He completed four passes and became the first non-injured starting quarterback to win a game with fewer than five completions in NFL history (and probably owes Jackson a steak dinner for that).

Trubisky was kept out of the end zone on an athletic play by Peppers, who met the fellow North Carolina Tar Heel before the game on the field, and then followed up that handshake with a third-down hit in the second quarter to force Chicago’s lone field goal.

“It was a pass play that was going to bring the running back out of the flat and try to sprint and throw it to him, but I was there,” Peppers said. “I saw him pull it to try to outrun me to the pylon. And it was a play. We both just raced to the pylon.”

Kawann Short also stood out, thwarting a field goal attempt with the very tip of his finger, and later delivering a third-down sack on Trubisky that forced Chicago to punt from its own end zone.

“If it weren’t for Vernon (Butler) I wouldn’t have gotten (the block),” Short grinned. “I give a lot of props to Vernon (for) double-teaming that guard out there and (me) just sticking a hand up.

“I don’t know if I jumped, but if I did, I probably didn’t get too high. ... Just got a good push, man.”

A head-scratcher

The notables only continue. They also make the loss look like even more of a head-scratcher.

The Panthers had the ball for 38:35 to Chicago’s 21:25. They allowed a franchise record-low five first downs, and forced five consecutive three-and-outs in the second half. The Bears converted just two third downs in the entire game.

“That’s the beautiful thing about numbers,” said Rivera. “We out-gained them, we out-possessed them. But when it counted they got the takeaways that turned into points.”

The only thing that the Panthers defense can really grind its teeth over, in fact, is its own lack of takeaways. Carolina is tied for second to last in the league with four takeaways, with only one interception this season (made by linebacker Luke Kuechly in Week 1).

Several – including a near-pick by cornerback James Bradberry on Sunday that barely dribbled away from him – have been close.

“(Trubisky) overthrew the ball, overthrew his receiver,” Bradberry said. “And I just have to come up with that, I’ve got to make plays when they are presented to me.”

‘We have to believe in it’

That sentiment – making plays when they are provided – has echoed through the locker room since the start of the season.

“We can’t approach it like it’s not going to happen,” said Short. “We have to believe in it.”

Short said the team works hard at this very goal in practice, with punch-outs and picks alike. That needs to carry over to game day, he said, and then it’ll be a domino effect.

“They come in bunches, the old cliche,” said Peppers. “And they will.

“Other than that, we are playing pretty damn good defense.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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