The Carolina Panthers knew exactly who they were last year.
They ran the ball for more than 100 yards in every game. They fielded a top-10 defense for the fourth year in a row. They put the ball in Cam Newton’s hands a lot and counted on him to come through, which he almost always did.
But the 2016 Panthers have an identity crisis. The 100-yard rushing streak is over. The defense is ranked 23rd. And while Newton played very well Sunday in a 41-38 loss to New Orleans, he has had an uneven season by his standards.
“We’re still finding our identity,” Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin said Sunday.
That’s sort of true, but not exactly. The Panthers are 1-5. They have a new identity. Like a bad driver’s license picture, though, they feel like they can do better and want to start over.
The Panthers’ new identity is that of a losing team with a defense that has given up more than 460 yards passing in two of the past three weeks, with a side order of missed kicks, yellow flags and untimely turnovers thrown in.
“It’s been the story of our season – penalties and self-inflicted wounds,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said Sunday. “At some point, it needs to change. Because if not, you just continue to stand up here and say the same thing, and we all look ridiculous.”
With a bye on Sunday, Panthers players will get the rest of the week off after a practice on Tuesday. The hope is that they will return with some semblance of a pass rush, which would help shore up a painfully bad secondary.
Drew Brees tore up the Panthers for 465 yards Sunday, along with four touchdown passes. Carolina got hardly any pressure on Brees – sacking him only once in the 50 times he dropped back for throws – and also made the mistake of going far away from the blitz toward the end of the game.
With Brees needing only a field goal to win, Carolina rushed a standard four rushers on every single play of New Orleans’ final drive. Brees did get sacked once. But otherwise – even though the Panthers had seven players guarding either four or five, depending on how many Saints were in the route – Brees found his target every time. Other than the sack, he wasn’t pressured at all on that drive, and Carolina showed no creativity whatsoever in trying to do so.
Head coach Ron Rivera said Monday that Carolina’s lack of a pass rush from its defensive lineman is “probably the biggest disappointment” through the first six games.
“We have done a good job stopping the run, but that’s not what is killing us,” Rivera said.
Carolina has given up 503 passing yards to Matt Ryan and 465 to Brees in the past three weeks. In 22 years of Panthers football, those numbers rank 1-2 for opposing quarterbacks.
So here’s the way to identify Carolina’s team right now – it gives up yardage in enormous chunks on defense (and it doesn’t blitz enough, either). The Saints sometimes kept six or seven players in to block for Brees on Sunday, confident that the remaining receivers could still get open even if they were double-covered.
The playoffs seem so far away now. The Panthers would just like to win a game.
“The easiest thing to do is quit,” Rivera said. “Shoot – we have 10 games to play.”
Those 10 games won’t turn out any better than the first six, however, if Carolina can’t figure out who it is.