Analysis: Panthers need to get out of their own way, blow chance to upset Rams

Analysis: Panthers need to get out of their own way, blow chance to upset Rams
(Source: via Carolina Panthers)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Brendan Marks//The Charlotte Observer) - Blame DJ Moore. Blame Joey Slye. Blame Cam Newton.

Heck, go ahead and blame Newton’s helmet, too, for this coulda-woulda-shoulda Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers had the Los Angeles Rams teed up for a season-opening upset. Instead?

Shank.

After an underwhelming performance like what Carolina just delivered, there’s oftentimes a glaring error. Something clearly out-of-whack. One player, or even a whole position group, to point to and say, “Yeah, that’s where things went wrong.” That wasn’t the case Sunday. Instead, as the Panthers limped to a 30-27 loss against the defending NFC champion Rams, practically everyone in white-and-blue deserved at least a small slice of blame.

That starts at the top with quarterback Newton, who was playing his first regular-season game since arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January. Newton was ... OK. But anyone expecting a resurgent, MVP-esque debut from him was left disappointed.

Newton’s stats — he finished 25-for-38 for 239 yards passing and minus-2 rushing yards — don’t tell the full story, as he never let the offense find its rhythm. Newton’s ugly habit of overthrowing passes again flared up. Late in the third quarter, he overthrew 6-foot-5 tight end Greg Olsen on back-to-back plays, including on third down, which stunted momentum and forced Carolina to settle for a field goal. The Panthers went 5-for-11 on third down, far from a winning strategy against the reigning NFC champs.

In the fourth quarter, after James Bradberry made a diving interception against Rams quarterback Jared Goff at the Panthers’ 29-yard line, Carolina went three-and-out: Newton rush (no gain), completed pass to Christian McCaffrey (4 yards) and another overthrow of a wide-open Curtis Samuel 20 yards down the right sideline. The Panthers punted, and Los Angeles scored seven plays later to make the score 30-20 with 6:37 remaining.

The Panthers did have a handful of nice offensive plays. McCaffrey’s first touchdown, when he took a direct snap and faked to Newton before barreling into the end zone, was a gorgeous play design by offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

But that sort of offensive effectiveness was a rarity Sunday, which was unfortunate for Carolina given how off Goff’s play was (23-of-39 for 186 yards and a 69.0 passer rating).

Newton made things worse later in the fourth quarter when he threw an interception to Cory Littleton that was returned to the Panthers’ 17, which all but sealed the afternoon’s result.

But not all the blame can be placed on Newton; there were plenty of other issues. The offensive line was called for a number of different penalties, and they failed to properly pick up blitzes, allowing Newton to be sacked three times.

Then there was second-year receiver DJ Moore, whose propensity for gaining yards after-the-catch endeared him to the NFL analytics community as a rookie. But Moore’s need to do more on Sunday proved costly, as he was involved in two of Carolina’s three turnovers.

On Carolina’s first drive, Moore caught a pass on the right sideline in Rams territory. He stopped to collect himself for a moment before diving back into two defenders, including Sam Ebukam, who promptly punched the ball out and collected the forced fumble. That stymied any momentum the Panthers had, but it also set the tone for the rest of the day.

One of the most bizzare sequences in the entire game came two drives later and the score still at 0-0. Facing third-and 7 at the Rams’ 29, the Panthers called time out. When they retook the field, there was an issue with the communication system in Newton’s helmet and he was unable to call a play, instead taking a delay-of-game penalty. On third-and-12 McCaffrey, rushed for a loss of one, setting up a 53-yard field-goal attempt for Joey Slye, which he missed wide right.

Disaster struck again in the second quarter when Newton threw a would-be screen pass to Moore that was ruled a lateral. The pass was tipped, Moore failed to corral it and the ball bounced around waiting to be jumped on. Finally the Rams obliged, setting up a short field and an ensuing touchdown.

The Rams’ stable of running backs, including Todd Gurley, also rushed for more than 150 yards. And for all the hype around the Panthers’ new 3-4 scheme, they hardly ran it, instead adjusting to Los Angeles’ pass-heavy offense. Again, a mixed bag.

Coach Ron Rivera characterized the loss as a series of “missed opportunities.”

The Panthers had a chance to upset a team that reached the Super Bowl in February — they probably even should have — but they couldn’t get out of their own way.