If the Carolina Panthers defense made particular adjustments in the second half, they must have disguised them masterfully.
A cross-section of Cincinnati Bengals offensive players said scoring just seven points after halftime wasn’t about being fooled. It was about playing foolishly: Committing turnovers, breaking off pass patterns and failing to convert third downs. That was their explanation for the Panthers prevailing 31-21 at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
However, something sure changed. While the Panthers are 2-1, the defense has lacked any real consistency in busting up drives. That continued early Sunday: Two of the Bengals’ first three possessions resulted in touchdowns in remarkably similar fashion. Each went 75 yards to the end zone. The first one took 11 plays and six minutes, the second took 12 plays and five minutes.
Another similarity that seemed a carryover from the Panthers’ Week 2 road loss to the Atlanta Falcons: A non-existent pass rush. After going sackless in Atlanta, the Panthers didn’t take down Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton Sunday until the midway through the third quarter.
But after that, it was much more what you’d want and expect from a Panthers front seven that is supposed to be elite: One score in the Bengals’ last seven drives, with three of those possessions ending in interceptions.
Dalton wasn’t inaccurate so much as unlucky. One of those interceptions was a deflection and he also was victimized by a huge injury when A.J. Green, who Dalton believes is the best wide receiver in the NFL, left the game with a groin injury.
The answers in the Bengals’ post-game locker room were short and not particularly illuminating.
“We killed ourselves with three turnovers,” said Green, who finished with five receptions for 58 yards before leaving the game on a pass broken up by Panthers cornerback James Bradberry. “It’s nothing they really did; we moved the ball very well. ... We knew if we did not have those turnovers we would have been in the game.”
No question the turnovers were huge, because early on Dalton was shredding the Panthers. With good play-action fakes and quick decisions, Dalton completed 17 of his 25 first-half attempts for 174 yards and a touchdown.
But it was a different story in the second half when Dalton was intercepted by lineman Efe Obada (off a deflection by Bradberry), cornerback Donte Jackson and linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd (132 yards and a touchdown off six receptions) thought hard when asked what the Panthers defense contributed to the Bengals’ struggles, but ultimately he couldn’t come up with anything.
“The turnovers crushed us, but we were able to move the ball whenever we wanted,” Boyd said. (The Bengals slightly outgained the Panthers 396 yards to 377). “Andy did a great job of keeping us rolling. I don’t think he threw a pick that was bluntly a (bad decision).
“Whoever got the most turnovers by the end of this day was likely to win.”
Simplistic as that might sound, it summed up what happened in a game where there was little else distinguishing the Panthers from the Bengals, two teams that combined to score off all five of their red-zone possessions: The Panthers never gave away the ball, the Bengals managed to give it away four times, and that’s why the Panthers squeaked into the bye week 2-1.