When Ron Rivera looks back on the 2018 season, specifically the Carolina Panthers’ seven-game losing streak (or eight-game, depending on how Week 17’s game in New Orleans goes) he’ll have a lot to mull.
A potentially record-breaking collapse — no team has ever finished 6-10 after starting 6-2.
The possibility of being without Cam Newton for an extended period of time — neither Newton nor the Panthers have confirmed or denied a looming offseason shoulder surgery.
His job security — if he does return to the Panthers in 2019, it’ll likely be on a hotter-than-average seat.
But Rivera, the defensive-minded coach that he is, said the toughest thing for him to overcome will “probably” be the big plays the Panthers have routinely given up over the past several weeks, Sunday’s 24-10 loss to Atlanta included.
Carolina gave up touchdowns of 44 and 75 yards Sunday, the latter proving to be the go-ahead score on the first play of the second half. It’s par for the course during the Panthers’ past seven losses, each of which defined by a momentum-shifting big play.
“That’s probably the biggest thing I’m going to have difficulty with,” Rivera said, “just because we have tried to put ourselves into position to keep everything in front of us and we have been doing, for the most part, a pretty decent job. It’s just one or two flare ups.
“Today it was really disappointing, mostly because of what the call was. I thought that was a call that was built for that type of play and unfortunately we didn’t execute it.”
The most recent thorn in Rivera’s side came on the Falcons’ opening play of the second half — a 75-yard toss from Matt Ryan to a wide-open Calvin Ridley.
Rivera didn’t specify what the Panthers’ defensive play-call was but with two safeties deep and both corners playing the flats, it looked like Cover 2. However, the safety on Ridley’s side, 14-year veteran Mike Adams, charged hard when Ryan faked a handoff to Tevin Coleman, leaving his deep half of the field unoccupied.
“Well they ran a play-action pass and one of our safeties came out of his half. You can’t do that,” Rivera said. “You are a deep back safety, you have to hold your depth and stay deep. That was unfortunate.”
Adams said he “locked in” on Coleman during the play, part of his desire to make something happen and set the tone for the second half.
Unfortunately for Adams and Carolina, he fell victim to the same thing several of his teammates are guilty of doing during this streak — pressing too hard.
“We straining, bro,” Adams said. “We’re trying to get a win and we’re trying to do too much honestly, myself included. Just trying to get a win, you know.
Straining. Straining. It sucks.”
The little momentum Carolina scraped together during an overachieving first-half performance evaporated with every blade of grass Ridley sent flying behind him.
The Panthers’ six second-half possessions resulted in two punts, two interceptions and two turnovers on downs. When Mohamed Sanu found a soft spot in the secondary and scored untouched from 44 yards out, it felt like overkill.
“To start the second half with a 75-yard touchdown in one play, that created some good momentum for us in the second half,” Ryan said. “Rarely in this league do you get two long touchdowns in a game that are untouched, and both of those guys were untouched on both plays.”
The Panthers secured their place at home during the NFL postseason and once the lockers are cleared following next Sunday’s game against the Saints, everyone in the organization will have plenty to reflect on.
Game-changing plays like this will remain at the forefront of Rivera’s mind.