Carolina Panthers

The Panthers found their winning formula vs. Titans — it was hiding in plain sight

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Expanded coverage of Carolina’s Week 9 victory over Tennessee

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It’s not quite mathematical, but the Carolina Panthers have a formula for winning.

And it only took one bad loss to reaffirm what it was — and what this team’s identity must be moving forward.

After the Panthers’ jaw-dropping 51-13 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers last week, there were questions about the state of this team. Serious doubts. Backup quarterback Kyle Allen, normally a mistake-free game manager, threw three interceptions in his worst career performance to date. The defense, which had been making a name for itself as one of the NFL’s better units, was steamrolled for more than 230 rushing yards.

That type of total undressing understandably warranted comparisons to last season’s debacle against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Carolina entered that game 6-2, was thoroughly beaten, 52-21, and limped through a seven-game losing streak that torpedoed the entire season.

As it turns out, San Francisco would not be Pittsburgh 2.0. Sunday’s 30-20 victory over the Titans affirmed that.

“It was a big tribute to their resilience,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The guys played hard, they did a lot of good things; they made plays when they had to, probably the most important thing.”

Against someone other than the undefeated 49ers, the Panthers (5-3) were able to stick to their formula:

Run the ball; don’t fall behind early; take the ball away on defense; and then let your pass-rushers put the game away.

“You look at our guys that are able to rush, we’ve got a whole bunch of guys that are able to do that,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “Anytime you can make a team one-dimensional, it makes our job on defense much easier.”

Allen took a sack on the Panthers’ first offensive possession, forcing the team to punt. Then on Tennessee’s first offensive play, cornerback James Bradberry was called for a questionable pass-interference penalty, gifting the Titans 42 yards for free. But two plays later, a Dontari Poe sack stifled the Titans’ drive and forced them to settle for a field-goal attempt.

Only, kicker Ryan Succop — who was activated this week off injured reserve — shanked the kick wide left to keep things scoreless.

Allen threw an interception on Carolina’s next drive after the ball was tipped at the line and then again by receiver Jarius Wright. But again, defensive pressure forced the Titans’ offensive line into three penalties in four (attempted) plays, which led to a Tennessee punt.

Without falling into an early deficit, the Panthers could stick to the script and continue running the ball with Christian McCaffrey. He had four consecutive runs of at least 5 yards to keep Carolina’s next drive alive, and it ultimately culminated with a 35-yard Joey Slye field goal.

That’s when the defensive intensity ratcheted up, courtesy of Donte Jackson.

Safety Eric Reid pierced through the Titans offensive line the next drive, clinging onto running back Dion Lewis from behind and eventually wriggling the ball loose. Jackson corralled the loose ball in just his second game back after a three-week absence with a groin injury.

On Tennessee’s next drive, quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s pass bobbled around in the air and Jackson again forced the turnover, picking the ball off and running it back into Titans territory.

“We knew we had to come out here and play ball and gain everybody’s trust back,” Jackson said. “Let them know that we’re right where we need to be.”

Four plays later, Rivera opted to go for it on fourth down, and Allen found McCaffrey wide open for the game’s first touchdown.

“We had a great drive up until that point. I think we just thought we had a really great play call for that situation,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “Everyone talks about gambling and taking chances — you know, you’re not really taking chances. We’re not trying to trick anyone. Those were calculated, schemed-up plays.”

To recap: Don’t fall behind? Check.

Lean on McCaffrey? Check.

Take the ball away defensively? Check.

All that was left was to rinse and repeat in the second half, which is what the Panthers did.

Allen helped the cause with a perfect 8-for-8 showing and 90 yards on a drive before the half, which ended with Curtis Samuel ripping down a 12-yard score. But after the break, it was the defense and McCaffrey who carried the Panthers the rest of the way.

The Titans (4-5) came out of intermission with an impressive Derrick Henry-heavy drive, but McCaffrey responded all the same. He was one of the few players who didn’t struggle against San Francisco, and against another stout defense, he again was undeterred. After a number of hard-nosed runs, he was rewarded with his second touchdown of the day from 1 yard out.

From that point, up three scores, it was a matter of milking the clock.

McCaffrey helped that effort, breaking a 58-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter that put him at more than 150 scrimmage yards for the afternoon.

“We had gotten some chunk runs throughout the whole day, some of those 4-, 5-, 6-yard runs that were hitting,” McCaffrey said of that long touchdown. “For me, it was just seeing air and turn on the jets. You know, (cornerback) Adoree’ Jackson is a track guy. He’s fast, man, so I was happy I got in the end zone because he hawks a lot of people down.”

And although Tennessee ultimately made things somewhat interesting late — a touchdown scramble from Tannehill with less than three minutes to go almost made it a one-score game — the Panthers’ defense again put the finishing touches on the afternoon. Marquis Haynes, who collected his first career sack earlier Sunday, pressured Tannehill on the two-point conversion and forced him to throw incomplete.

With the win, the Panthers keep themselves in the ultra-competitive NFC playoff picture.

More importantly?

They got their feet back under them. They proved that they learned from last year’s disaster against Pittsburgh.

And now their formula for winning, which has been hiding in plain sight the first half of this season, is reaffirmed.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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