When Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera recently put on the tape of the Week 8 loss to Seattle, he realized quickly how many important pieces in his offense had been missing.
Fullback Mike Tolbert, who was on the temporary injured reserve with a leg injury, did not play. Running back DeAngelo Williams, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, also sat out. Right tackle Nate Chandler hurt his thigh and was replaced by undrafted rookie David Foucault.
Carolina managed 114 rushing yards but felt the players’ absence most in the red zone. The Panthers went 0-for-3 inside the Seahawks’ 20 and lost 13-9.
At 8:15 p.m. Saturday in Seattle, the teams will meet again, in the NFC’s divisional round.
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“There were things you looked at and enlightened yourself to and said, oh, wow, ‘OK, now things may be different,’ ” Rivera said Monday. “We have a different opportunity. But again, they’re different, too. They’ve got some guys back and healthy on the football field.”
Seattle was without All-Pro inside linebacker Bobby Wagner, a key element in their top-ranked defense, but the Seahawks managed without him.
The Panthers didn’t deal well with their absences.
With Tolbert out, Carolina was forced to use tight ends in the backfield.
When Ed Dickson was on the field, he usually was behind quarterback Cam Newton to block for running back Jonathan Stewart. Fellow tight ends Greg Olsen and Brandon Williams also had to play fullback.
On six of Carolina’s 11 plays at or inside the Seattle 20, the Panthers had at least one tight end in the backfield. Twice the Panthers had two tight ends in the backfield, and those plays combined to net a loss of 7 yards.
“A big part of why we’ve lost to them in those defensive battles has been our red zone efficiency, settling for too many field goals,” Olsen said Monday. “That’s got to be a point of emphasis for us this week. The opportunities could be limited for us at times. You’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities and score when you get close and give yourself some breathing room.”
Carolina’s first trip to the red zone Oct. 26 was marred by poor offensive line play and resulted in a field goal.
Right guard Fernando Velasco, since replaced by rookie Trai Turner, allowed his defender to get too far into the backfield and disrupt a Newton draw. On the next play, members of the line took too long pulling for a screen pass. Finally, left tackle Byron Bell allowed a pressure that forced Newton to scramble, and he came up short of a first down.
On the next visit inside the 20, Dickson, Brandon Williams and Foucault had missed assignments on separate plays. Rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin also dropped a sure touchdown pass against cornerback Richard Sherman, and the Panthers settled for another field goal.
Carolina’s final visit to the red zone ended after one play when Newton fumbled a handoff to Stewart at the 16.
In the time since their last meeting, Carolina’s line has solidified. The Panthers will start the same offensive line for the sixth consecutive game on Saturday, with the right side strengthened with Turner at guard and Mike Remmers replacing Nate Chandler at tackle.
The addition of Tolbert also should help. Stewart’s productivity since the start of December has reduced the need for Tolbert to rush the ball and put greater emphasis on his blocking. In six games since returning from the IR, Tolbert has 30 touches in 140 offensive snaps.
The changes and adjustments also could mean more possibilities for the pass-catching tight ends. Dickson has been targeted more times during the past five games (nine) than in his first 12.
Olsen said he sees opportunities for more production Saturday. He had his least-productive game of the season against the Seahawks with one catch for 16 yards on three targets. Stopping the Seattle pass rush is paramount, Olsen said, but he should be doing less of that this week and more of what earned him his first Pro Bowl selection.
“In the first game I didn’t have a lot of opportunities” Olsen said. “I caught an early pass on third down and that was about it, but I go into each game thinking I’m going to have a big impact on the passing game. That’s what we plan for. That’s what we work for all week.
“And that’s your intentions every game, and we’ll see how it goes.”