It’s widely assumed the 2011 Carolina Panthers are much better than the 2010 version. They’ve found a potential franchise quarterback and their offense has gone from woefully inept to one of the more exciting units in the NFL. But the stat that matters most looks all too familiar. Last year’s Panthers started 1-5. After Sunday’s loss in Atlanta, these Panthers are 1-5.
The theme against the Falcons was mostly the same as it was in the first four losses this season. It was a game the Panthers could have won but didn’t because of mistakes and a suspect defense. But add a third reason to this loss: The Falcons created their own breaks.
With less than a minute to go before halftime, the Panthers were set up at the Atlanta 10 yard line. At worst, a field goal would send them to the break down 14-13. Even better, Cam Newton saw an open Steve Smith in the end zone. Then a William Moore fingertip changed the trajectory of not only the ball, but of the halftime score.
"He got his hand up on it and was doing exactly what he was supposed to do," Newton explained. "It was another set of points we took off the table."
While the deflection shows up in the box score as an interception from Newton to Brent Grimes, the play was made by Moore’s flailing tip. It’s hard to pin too much blame on the rookie quarterback for that pass or for the one he made later that essentially ended the Panthers chances.
Sure, Newton will perhaps learn a better "feel" for the fourth quarter screen pass he tried to lob to DeAngelo Williams. But it was mostly just a smart and, strangely enough, athletic play by the 305 pound defensive tackle Corey Peters.
"He just backed up. It was an excellent play by him," Newton said.
The Falcons also went at the Panthers where they’re most vulnerable defensively. Despite looking slower for much of this season, Michael Turner chewed up yards on the ground. Add him to the list: James Starks, Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte and Turner have all had their best rushing games of the year against the Panthers.
"Michael Turner is a good running back, but if we play like we’re capable of playing, we shut him down," Panthers defensive tackle Terrell McClain said.
It’s nice that McClain said his team could shut down a running back like Turner. McClain may actually even believe that, but it’s not realistic. Injuries have combined with inexperience to make the Panthers defense susceptible to the gashing they took Sunday.
No matter how well Newton and the offense play this year, it’s clear they’re going to have to make up for what the defense lacks. The problem is Newton and the offense will most likely continue to make mistakes other, more experienced teams could possibly get away with. They could also use some bounces to go their way, and Sunday, the Falcons made sure that didn’t happen.
Despite their similar records and a somewhat worse defense, the Panthers are better than they were a year ago at this time. But time is what they need to truly show improvement in the win/loss column.
"We can’t make mistakes," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "We’re too young and we’re developing. We can’t do those things to hurt ourselves."