Carolina Panthers

Panthers facing an unfamiliar problem, and time to fix it has arrived

RIvera wants players to get away from football for a bit

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said he told his players to get away from football over the four-day break after their loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sometimes the best medicine is to get away, forget it, and come back ready to roll.
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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said he told his players to get away from football over the four-day break after their loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sometimes the best medicine is to get away, forget it, and come back ready to roll.

As they’ve crossed over the midseason point, the biggest issue facing the Carolina Panthers (6-3) is not a problem the team is accustomed to having.

It’s not injuries. Quarterback Cam Newton’s shoulder is clearly operating well, albeit with some soreness, tight end Greg Olsen is playing well on a twice-fractured foot.

The Panthers’ rebuilt offensive line is healthy and has been solid despite the stink-fest Thursday in a 52-21 loss at Pittsburgh.

No, it’s the pass rush.

Carolina hasn’t gotten to the quarterback consistently. The Panthers have 22 sacks, tied for 21st in the league. They are averaging 2.4 sacks per game, but their only stretch of consecutive games with two or more sacks came in Weeks 6-9.

Last season, Carolina finished with 50 sacks and averaged three per game.

Thursday night exposed the Panthers’ lack of pressure. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had about a thousand years on every snap to throw for 328 yards and five touchdowns, and finished with a perfect passer rating.

Head coach Ron Rivera said after the loss that the lack of pressure was more about what the Steelers did correctly than what Carolina did wrong.

Well, you got to give them credit. Early on, we came on and we were going to run some pressure things, (but Roethlisberger) started to whip the ball outside, so we were very ineffective with our pressures,” he said. “Then when we started to rush forward, they were blocking six people and putting the rest to the out on the route.

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“So, the quarterbacks had a little more time. Again, when teams mix it up that well, it’s tough getting pressure on the quarterback. They did very good job at that.”

But Friday, after reviewing the film of the loss, Rivera allowed that some of the issues with the rush have been self-inflicted, and the newer personnel both on staff and on the field are still working things out.

The Panthers have veterans Julius Peppers and Mario Addison starting, but behind them there is less experience in a rotation that features Wes Horton, Bryan Cox Jr. and Efe Obada. Defensive coordinator Eric Washington, formerly the team’s defensive line coach for eight seasons, is in his first year in his new role. His replacement as defensive line coach, Brady Hoke, is as well.

Dline
Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers (center) is a veteran on a pass-rush that has not been consistent this season and must find better ways to disrupt quarterbacks. Mark Tenally AP

“We’re playing a lot of young guys, and a lot of different guys too, now,” Rivera said. “That’s part of it, getting a feel for one another as well. And sometimes it’s clicked and it has clicked very well. ... Probably the inconsistency of the pass rush is the young guys that we are using. It’s difficult when you don’t have that continuity from the start, so these guys are developing that rapport. That’s all a part of it too. ...

“Defensively, we have to continue to roll these guys until we find something that I think really clicks on the pass-rush side.”

Sunday’s game at Detroit could be a great opportunity. The Lions have given up 16 sacks in two weeks, including a whopping 10 in a 24-9 loss to Minnesota in Week 9. And Carolina’s embarrassing performance in Pittsburgh is sure to add a little juice.

While solving Carolina’s pass rush won’t solve all the defensive problems, a more fearsome rush would make facing the Panthers a lot harder on the quarterbacks who remain on the schedule.

The Panthers see quarterback Drew Brees and an explosive New Orleans offense twice in December, and will likely need to beat the Saints at least once to secure a playoff spot.

Carolina also has divisional pocket-passers Matt Ryan and Ryan Fitzpatrick still ahead, and both are capable of putting up big numbers. Plus, Carolina must contain dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seahawks at home in Week 12.

One way or another, Carolina’s pass rush must find better ways to disrupt the quarterback.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue
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