Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton shines, but Panthers’ comeback bid against Falcons come up short, 31-24

The Atlanta Falcons took advantage of a young and depleted Carolina Panthers secondary on Sunday, including on this Calvin Ridley touchdown in the first half.
The Atlanta Falcons took advantage of a young and depleted Carolina Panthers secondary on Sunday, including on this Calvin Ridley touchdown in the first half. AP

Another Carolina Panthers road trip to Atlanta, another Carolina Panthers road loss in Atlanta.

But unlike last season’s Week 17 loss, there was no one clear unit that struggled on Sunday. Rather, it was an all-encompassing letdown, with the offense and defense both sharing the blame in Carolina’s eventual 31-24 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

An example: Cam Newton threw his first two touchdown passes of this season, including an absolute dart to Torrey Smith in the red zone, but his skill position players largely failed to help him out. With the team charging downfield late in the fourth quarter and hoping for a comeback, Newton’s pass to CJ Anderson bounced right off the running back’s hands and into the waiting grasp of a Falcons safety. Add that to prior drops by Devin Funchess, Jarius Wright, and Ian Thomas, and it’s easy to understand why Carolina’s offense was so sporadic.

And defensively, it was a complete change of pace from the dominance exhibited in the season-opening win over Dallas. Compared with six sacks against the Cowboys, Carolina’s defensive line didn’t register a sack of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. That even fails to mention how Carolina allowed Atlanta, down starting running back Devonta Freeman, to rack up more rushing yards than Carolina allowed in any game last season.

A late touchdown by rookie DJ Moore, the first of his NFL career, brought the score back to a more respectable deficit, but ultimately it was too little, too late.

After a final Atlanta punt, Cam Newton and Co. had time for one final comeback drive, but with only one timeout and less than two minutes to play, could only come close.

With five seconds left, Cam Newton’s final pass attempt to DJ Moore in the end zone came up incomplete, dropping the Panthers to 1-1. Atlanta is also 1-1 in the competitive NFC South, with both the Panthers and Falcons a game behind Tampa Bay (2-0)..

Three who mattered

Christian McCaffrey: His 14 catches for 102 yards once again led the team in both categories, and with little separation from others in Carolina’s receiving corps, he was Cam Newton’s safety valve all afternoon. And without Greg Olsen for the foreseeable future, that trend could continue over the next several weeks.

Damontae Kazee: The Falcons safety filled in for the injured Keanu Neal for the first quarter Sunday, but then had a late, helmet-to-helmet hit on Newton that started a scrum on the field. Kazee was ejected from the game, and after being evaluated for a concussion on the sideline, Newton returned to the game without missing a play.

Matt Ryan: He took advantage of Carolina’s revamped secondary all afternoon, even with Carolina limiting Julio Jones to 64 yards on five receptions. Add in his two rushing touchdown on top of his already-impressive passing statline — 23-for-28, 272 yards and two touchdowns — and Sunday ended up being one of Ryan’s more well-rounded performances.

Observations

Defensive coordinator Eric Washington said earlier this week that he was impressed with how rookie cornerback Donte Jackson held his own tackling-wise in his first NFL game. Jackson looked good with five tackles on Carolina’s first two defensive possessions, but then struggled on the third — he missed a tackle on Tevin Coleman that led to a 36-yard run, and then was beaten by fellow rookie Calvin Ridley for Atlanta’s first touchdown of the game.

Not a terrific first half for Panthers receiver Torrey Smith, who was called for two false start penalties and one personal foul after he shoved Kazee in retaliation for the late hit on Newton. He made up for it in the fourth quarter though, hanging onto a spectacular touchdown catch with a Falcons defender draped all over him.

Ryan led a textbook two-minute drill to end the first half, connecting with five different receivers — none of them named Jones — and carving up the Panthers secondary. Safety Da’Norris Searcy was injured on the series and replaced by Colin Jones, and Ryan eventually found tight end Austin Hooper for an 8-yard score over Shaq Thompson in coverage.

Carolina’s streak of 21 games not allowing a 100-yard rusher came crashing down Sunday, as Tevin Coleman reached that total by the end of the third quarter. He ultimately finished the game with 107 yards, and the Falcons as a team ran for 170 yards. Comparatively, the Panthers had 121 yards rushing.

As if Carolina didn’t already have enough injury concerns, several other players were hurt Sunday. Searcy entered the concussion protocol and left the game early, and Jackson also didn’t play in the fourth quarter with a hamstring injury.

Worth mentioning

The NFL announced Sunday morning that the NFL Foundation will contribute $1 million to Hurricane Florence relief efforts. The NFL also is encouraging fans to text FLORENCE to 90999 to donate $10 to American Red Cross relief efforts for Florence.

Donte Jackson’s interception on the second play of the second half — the first pick of his NFL career — was also Carolina’s first interception this season. The team already had a takeaway though: Captain Munnerlyn’s fumble recovery to end the Dallas game.

Without starting tight Greg Olsen, who re-fractured his right foot in Carolina’s season-opening win over Dallas, the Panthers’ production at tight end dropped off fairly significantly. No Carolina tight end was even targeted until there was 5:51 left to play in the third quarter, at which point Ian Thomas caught a 2-yard pass.

The Panthers host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, at 1 p.m.

They said it

“This game isn’t fit for cheap shots like that.” – Newton on Kazee’s illegal hit.

“Terrible.” – Panthers coach Ron Rivera, when asked to assess the team’s run defense.

“I’m not going to out-Cam Cam Newton.” – Ryan on his two rushing touchdowns.

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