For the Carolina Panthers, the red zone has become the dead zone.
In Carolina’s 32 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, the Panthers have scored touchdowns 14 times. That 43.8 percent clip ranks fifth-worst in the NFL.
“People are saying a lot and so much about the red zone woes that ... I become speechless,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “First down, you realize you’re in red zone, nothing’s happening. Second down, you’re like OK it’s not happening. And then third down, incompletion or a negative play. It’s not happening.”
That has been the case for most of the Panthers for more than a month. In the past five games – all losses – the Panthers have scored touchdowns twice in nine trips to the red zone.
Last week against the Vikings, the Panthers went 0-for-2. Near the end of the first quarter, the Panthers were at the Minnesota 19 with a first down, and got to the 10 after a neutral zone infraction.
That’s when the wheels fell off.
On second-and-1, Jonathan Stewart tried to go up the middle as the line overloaded to the right with tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson. The Vikings blew through the tight ends and tackled Stewart for a loss of 2. The next play, Newton tried to find Olsen across the middle, but the ball was tipped at the line.
“There’s no secret … just work hard on the execution,” said offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who has answered questions about the red zone woes every Monday for the past month. “I really thought the third down pass on the first one to Greg was going to be a touchdown, and then the guy batted it down. We’re second-and-1 and lost yards. You can’t do that.”
On Carolina’s next trip, the Panthers had first down at the Minnesota 20. The Panthers rushed DeAngelo Williams for a gain of 3 despite the Vikings loading eight men in the box before the play.
Newton had to throw the ball away on a second-down roll out after he didn’t pull the trigger on a pass to Olsen quickly enough. And on third down, Kelvin Benjamin couldn’t control a would-be first down pass from Newton.
Rivera showed support for Shula and his play calls this week, placing the blame on individual missed assignments.
“These are a lot of the plays that we ran last year that we had success in the red zone as well,” Rivera said. “Unfortunately for right now it’s about execution and getting those things done. Could we have made another call? Yes most certainly we could have made another call. Could we have thrown the ball instead of run it? Or run the ball instead of thrown it? Yes, we could have done that as well.
“But for the moment and timing of the calls, there’s a rhythm you’re trying to get into; you move the ball down calling what you call, and all of a sudden something bad happens.”
This week the Panthers travel to New Orleans to face the Saints, who rank 25th in the league in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 61.5 percent of opponent’s trips there.
Carolina believed adding fullback Mike Tolbert to the lineup after his stint on the temporary injured reserve would help matters, but last week it did not.
That rankled Tolbert, who by this week had heard enough of his team’s troubles inside the 20.
“It’s frustrating, but we know we’ve got to be better,” Tolbert said. “We don’t need guys coming to tell us what we’re not doing right. We know we’re not doing the things right, and we have to get it corrected and get in the end zone.”