Scott Fowler

Panthers’ new-and-improved offense? What we’ve seen so far won’t cut it vs. Atlanta

While Carolina’s Cam Newton (1) was effective running the ball against Dallas, he also didn’t complete a pass longer than 19 yards. The game plan for Atlanta: Run Newton less and the tailbacks more while also trying for more explosive plays in the passing game.
While Carolina’s Cam Newton (1) was effective running the ball against Dallas, he also didn’t complete a pass longer than 19 yards. The game plan for Atlanta: Run Newton less and the tailbacks more while also trying for more explosive plays in the passing game. AP

For all the hyperbole about the Carolina Panthers getting better and faster at the offensive skill positions in 2018, we have yet to see it happen.

Carolina’s game at Atlanta on Sunday would be a fine time for this facet of the Panthers’ offense to emerge — because 16 points against the high-octane Falcons likely won’t get it done.

The Panthers remade much of their wide receiving corps in the offseason while adding offensive coordinator Norv Turner and running back C.J. Anderson. The team’s top player at three different key positions — quarterback Cam Newton, running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Devin Funchess — remained the same.

The grade so far? Incomplete. Carolina’s 16-8 victory over Dallas in Week 1 had a few nice offensive moments — 147 rushing yards, zero interceptions and Newton running the ball as effectively as ever.

But the Panthers didn’t have a pass completion of 20 or more yards. McCaffrey lost a fumble inside the Dallas 10. And new wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright combined for 38 yards.

Most concerning of all, the Panthers have slid further down the injury slope since then. Tight end Greg Olsen (foot) is once again out for multiple weeks, and and the offensive line has been decimated by all sorts of injuries.

“We care about the guys and it’s a huge loss,” Wright said. “But at the same time, this is the NFL and you expect guys to be able to step up.”

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As for last week, Wright said: “We did leave points out there on the board.”

The Panthers really didn’t throw the ball deep at all, although Wright and several others pointed out that Dallas dropped their safeties and linebackers so far back in that game it made the long ball a poor-percentage play.

Wright promised Carolina has vertical shots “in the game plan” against Atlanta. And the Panthers will probably need to throw several — and hit on at least one — to keep Atlanta honest in run defense and help Carolina’s primary goal of controlling the game through the run.

fowler-mccaffrey-0914
Christian McCaffrey announced Tuesday night that he is the executive producer for an upcoming film, “Unicorn Town.” David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

To beat the Falcons, Carolina not only needs more explosive plays but also may well need to rush for more than 150 yards. Expect the team to force-feed lead tailback Christian McCaffrey more often this week — 15-20 carries would be ideal, head coach Ron Rivera said.

McCaffrey only had 10 carries last week, although he gained 50 yards.

Not including three meaningless late-game kneel-downs, Newton ran the ball 10 times for 64 yards against Dallas.

“I was surprised by the (high) number,” Turner admitted.

“There were 4-5 called runs for me that Cam kept because of the (zone) read,” McCaffrey said.

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This week Turner said he would like 5-6 of Newton’s runs last week to instead be split between McCaffrey and Anderson.

Anderson had seven carries last week for 35 yards. He said he doesn’t mind.

“Who cares?” Anderson said. “We just want to win football games.”

McCaffrey agreed.

“This is the most ultimate team game there is,” he said. “In a society with fantasy football, it gets so individualized.”

As for the Panthers’ receivers, none of them gained 50 yards last week in a game where Carolina’s 16 points fell almost a touchdown short of its 2017 scoring average (22.7).

The Panthers nevertheless won against Dallas. To beat Atlanta — a team missing perhaps its two best defensive players, along with its No. 1 running back — will require a better offensive effort.

It can be done — but only if the skill players demonstrate more skill.

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