What we learned from the Panthers loss to the Bucs and what’s next
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Quick access to full coverage of Carolina’s Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay.
What do you call a mess? Not just a regular mess, but a totally boring, boo-inspiring sort of mess?
The Carolina Panthers’ offense dropped a dud Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on national television. The Panthers’ 20-14 loss is a symptom of that disastrous offensive showing, and one that should have Carolina (0-2) looking inward just two games into this 2019 season.
And no, a sloppy field created by a 27-minute weather delay in the first quarter isn’t to blame for the sloppy play.
Carolina’s offensive shortcomings all came to a head on the team’s last-ditch drive in the fourth quarter. After a series of confusing penalties, and completions to DJ Moore and Christian McCaffrey, Carolina faced fourth-and-1 from Tampa’s 2-yard line.
Norv Turner, Carolina’s offensive coordinator, dove deep into the playbook, calling a direct snap trick play to McCaffrey, who faked the reverse to Curtis Samuel, but Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III never bought the fake, stuffing McCaffrey a yard short of the line to gain.
Like that, the Panthers’ drive — and game — came to an end.
“We felt Christian had a good opportunity to score,” coach Ron Rivera said. “So we went fake-reverse, ghost action, trying to deke ‘em a little bit. We had every opportunity, and we thought we could at least get the first down. Unfortunately, we didn’t.”
It’s easy to pin all the blame on quarterback Cam Newton — and for the second straight week, he deserves a fair share of it — but the problems were widespread.
This isn’t the case of a tree with one rotten branch. This is an infection in the roots, the trunk and into the leafs.
But Newton is where it starts. He again consistently overthrew his targets, including twice to Jarius Wright on the same second-quarter drive. Even on the one true deep pass he completed, a 44-yard rainbow of a toss to speedy receiver Curtis Samuel, Newton struggled with accuracy. If he’d hit Samuel in stride, it would have been six points.
“I have to be better. No matter what physical condition I’m in, no matter what foot, shoulder,” Newton said. “I didn’t get the job done tonight. I wish I could say something other than that, but that’s the facts.”
And after running for a career-low minus-3 yards in Week 1 against the Rams, there were questions whether the 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback would rush more on Thursday.
The answer was no. Newton’s first designed run didn’t come until midway through the third quarter. And as the quarterback held the ball loosely in one hand like a softball, Bucs defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh forced a fumble that Tampa Bay (1-1) recovered.
Entering this season, Newton had two career games with 0 or negative rushing yards. This year, he has had two more in in a span of five days.
“We had our opportunities — it didn’t come down to me not running the football,” Newton said. “It’s my job to execute, simple and plain, whatever play is called.”
Newton finished the game 25-of-51 for 324 yards, but was responsible for no touchdowns for the second week in a row. That now makes four straight games without a touchdown accounted for, dating back to Newton’s last two games of 2018.
At no point in his career before the last four games had Newton gone back-to-back weeks without accounting for a passing or rushing touchdown.
That said, it would be remiss to put all the blame on Newton — especially given how little protection his offensive line gave him. Newton was battered, beaten, sacked and thrown around like a rag doll, not a franchise quarterback.
Taylor Moton was called for back-to-back penalties in the first quarter. Daryl Williams was beaten for back-to-back sacks in the third.
Bucs linebacker Shaq Barrett, with 15 career sacks in six seasons, had three Thursday night. All of them came against Williams, and they all came in different fashions: Two with speed around the edge, and the third with a bull rush straight at Newton.
“At the end of the day, we’ve just got to pick it up, no matter what they bring,” guard Trai Turner said. “We fell short, whatever the case may be.”
It wasn’t even just that the offensive line allowed such a steady stream of pressure; it was when that pressure came. Namely, at the worst possible times.
“We gave up a sack at an inopportune moment. We had a penalty at another bad moment. We missed a throw at another bad moment,” Rivera said. “Maybe we could have called something different, but it’s a mix and combination of things.”
After seemingly every positive Panthers play — whether a deep completion to Greg Olsen or even anything that didn’t turn into negative yardage — that pressure was there. Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles sent it in droves, and the Panthers’ offensive line struggled to contain it. That meant sending McCaffrey back into blitz pickup, which effectively neutralizes Carolina’s most complete offensive weapon.
Even McCaffrey couldn’t seem to get going Thursday. With Newton not running, the defense could home in on No. 22 and No. 22 alone.
“Coach put the ball in my hands at the end of the game, and I blew it,” McCaffrey said of his team’s last play. “It’s my fault. I’ll take that one.”
McCaffrey isn’t supposed to be the only offensive threat. He’s supposed to be part of Turner’s misdirection-based offense. But Thursday, the only thing that looked void of direction was this offense.
Second-year receiver Moore was able to get open with relative consistency, and him finishing with nine catches for 89 yards validates that.
Olsen, too, was solid, even with a rolled back and a busted nose he sustained when a Bucs defender punched through the gap in his facemask. He finished with 110 yards, his first 100-yard performance since December 2017.
But aside from that deep completion in the first quarter, Samuel failed to gain much separation. He dropped a pass (that was slightly behind him) on third-and-9 in the fourth quarter, which the Bucs followed up with a clock-draining drive of 6 minutes and 32 seconds. Aside from Samuel, Moore and Olsen, no receiver had more than two catches or 20 yards.
Again, there’s no denying this Panthers loss comes down to the offensive side of the ball. Twelve of Carolina’s 14 points came via Joey Slye’s right foot, and the last two via a safety at the start of the fourth quarter.
“We just have to find ways to put points on the board. That’s what we signed up for,” Newton said. “That’s an offensive 101.”
And Newton and the Panthers are flunking.