Receiver Jarvis Landry took the handoff from Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, nestled the football against his forearm and the crook of his elbow, and ran.
And ran, and ran.
He ran past veteran Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who had gotten slowed up after bumping against veteran safety Mike Adams because the latter spun and whiffed on the tackle. Landry ran through the one-armed takedown attempt by rookie cornerback Donte Jackson. He barely sniffed the same zip code as cornerback James Bradberry.
Landry kept running, for 51 yards, until he was dragged down from behind by linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly was 10 yards behind Landry when he found the hole and kicked into his second gear.
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We knew Kuechly could do this type of thing, of course.
But it was seeing, on that play, what others could not do that made the 26-20 loss to the 5-7-1 Cleveland Browns — the Browns — all the more jarring.
“Guys did a good job of making him change direction and slowing him down, and it’s hard to make tackles in the open field, when he’s got the whole field at his hands,” Kuechly said.
Sure, guys were bobbing and weaving all over the field as the shifty Landry ate up the turf.
He had plenty of room to run in the first place, leading to the open field, on which it is hard to make tackles.
But in a league that favors versatile offensive players who are faster than ever, it’s clear the Panthers, on defense, are at risk of doing what about six players were doing on Landry’s run: Falling behind.
General manager Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera touted the addition of speed at offensive skill positions last spring.
But finding that special extra gear that Rivera wants on this defense has been rare during the team’s five-game losing streak.
“I feel that we have some holes to fill on the football team, and we’ve got some positions that we need to look at and continue to get speed,” said Rivera after the game. “That, I think, is the biggest thing. We’re starting to see the importance of it, and the significance of it when we play fast. We need to give ourselves the opportunity to be successful.”
But Carolina’s ability to first play fast on defense, and then match that with consistent execution, has been placed on a milk carton — the contents of which went sour way back in Week 10, in a now-infamous drubbing by Pittsburgh.
It’s not for lack of trying to shake off the inconsistencies. Rivera even fired two defensive assistants and took control of the play-calling this week.
Yet play-calling was never the problem, Davis said forcefully after the game.
“I felt like we were in position, a lot of times, to make some really good plays,” he said. “And whether it’s (Rivera) calling the plays or whether it’s (defensive coordinator Eric Washington) calling the plays, it still boils down to players making plays and executing the defense.”
The problem is, the Panthers’ lack of execution has been exposed, time and again over the past five weeks, and most often on defense. That should chap the fanny of Rivera, a defensive-minded head coach whose Panthers teams have year after year boasted some of the most formidable players in the league.
But teams aren’t afraid of this defense anymore.
Mayfield, even as a rookie, wasn’t. He watched the Panthers’ secondary, for example, give up momentum-shifting, field-flipping passing plays in bunches over the past five weeks.
And what did he do?
Unfurled a 66-yard dime to receiver Beshaud Perriman on his very first snap, with Jackson in coverage. The Browns scored three plays later.
It was the 13th passing play of 20-plus yards given up by the Panthers in the past five weeks. They finished the game with 15 given up in the past five games, for a total of 613 yards on just those plays. Cleveland gashed Carolina for chunk plays of 66, 51, 51, 29, 28 and 15 yards on Sunday.
This is not Carolina Panthers football. Davis told players as much in a players-only meeting before the loss at Tampa Bay last Sunday.
But the losses continue. In Tampa, it was four interceptions that sealed Carolina’s fate. Too often elsewhere, it’s the deep ball. Or the inability to get off the field on third down. Or red zone struggles, or dropped passes, or inability to win on the road, or inability to close a one-possession game, or, missed tackles, or, or, or ...
Quarterback Cam Newton, who threw an interception with the Panthers down six points and 1:04 left to play, summed up the night — and the Panthers’ past five games — perfectly, and succinctly:
“We’ve just found ways to come up short.”
Rivera and Hurney — if they’re still around — will have several tough decisions ahead, to find players who can do the opposite.
And to find out what can get this team back to playing Carolina Panthers football.