Don't blame Ron Rivera and Mike Shula's game plan for the Carolina Panthers' ugly 22-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday -- it was sound, for the most part. The defense smothered the Cardinals struggling offense in the first half, stuffing the run and harassing quarterback Carson Palmer into inaccurate and ill-advised throws. On the offensive side of the ball, Cam Newton looked sharped, and, if not for a couple of key drops, the offense could have put up a decent number going into the break.
Where Rivera and his coaching staff lost the game was their inability to adjust to an evolving game -- a problem that has plagued Carolina over the last 36 games.
We all know how bad the Panthers record is in close games -- I probably don't have to tell you it's 2-14, as it's been thrown in our face on every telecast -- but this might be an even more depressing stat: In the 36 games under Rivera, the Panthers have outscored their opponents in the second half only 10 times. The problem isn't the game plan...it's the inability to adjust the game plan on the sidelines, which is vital:
"In high school, you make corrections on Saturday morning. In college, you make corrections at halftime. In the NFL, you make corrections on the sidelines immediately—or you lose." – Former Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith, via Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen
(And just a quick remark on the 2-14 record in close games: It actually flatters the Panthers' abilities to win close games. Consider the situation in those two wins: The first came in a monsoon against Blane Gabbert as a rookie; the second came in a game that the Panthers led by 13 with under three minutes remaining against a 2012 Saints team that couldn't wait for its season to end.)
Against Arizona, the Panthers defensive game plan was similar to their strategy against the Giants: Stuff the running game without bringing a safety down into the box, rush four to get pressure and play with two deep safeties. The plan worked throughout the first half, as the Cardinals struggled to run and decided to test the Panthers secondary with deep passes. Those long-developing plays gave the Panthers pass rushers enough time to hurry Palmer into bad throws.
The Cardinals adjusted. They started throwing quicker passes, neutralizing Carolina's ability to rush the passer. Then the running game started to get going for Arizona.
But the Panthers didn't seem to alter their approach. They blitzed only twice during the entire game -- one of those blitzes resulted in a sack -- even though the pass rush wasn't very effective as the game wore on. And as the Cardinals started having success on the ground, the Panthers kept their two safeties deep, inviting Arizona to keep running down their throats to ice the game, when they should have stuffed the box with defenders to force Palmer to beat them.
Offensively the Panthers couldn't adjust to a blitzing Arizona defense. According to Pro Football Focus, the Cardinals blitzed on 28 on the Panthers' 47 drop backs. As an offensive coordinator, when you know a team is blitzing, you should be able to dial up some plays that will beat it. Mike Shula never did, and Newton was sacked seven times and was pressured on 44 percent of his drop backs.
Shula continued to keep Cam in the pocket as his quarterback was being pummeled all day. I counted only one play in which the Panthers rolled Newton outside of the pocket on a run-pass option -- and that one play led to a first-down run.
Why on earth does Shula continue to keep this once-in-a-lifetime athlete in the pocket? It's maddening.
When changes are obviously needed, the Panthers just can't adjust. It must be an organizational thing.