There was good and bad to take away in the Carolina Panthers’ 30-27 season opener loss to the Los Angeles Rams. The good? Christian McCaffrey. The third-year running back turned in one of his best games yet when he posted over 200 yards from scrimmage and scored two touchdowns on the ground. Another good? Cam Newton played the full 60 minutes. There were questions lingering around Newton’s shoulder and ankle before entering the game. Neither seemed to affect Newton throughout the game despite a less than exciting performance from the franchise quarterback. The bad? Carolina lost in a sloppy show out.
With the Panthers down 13-3 at halftime to the defending NFC Champions following a missed field goal attempt and a red zone fumble from D.J. Moore, it didn’t appear the Panthers could find their offensive rhythm in time to dig themselves out of a deep hole. Things finally started to click in the second half. With 8:28 left in the third quarter, McCaffrey scored the Panthers’ first touchdown of the 2019 season. A field goal and another touchdown later, Carolina inched themselves within three points of the Rams. But missed opportunities and a costly fourth quarter interception would seal Carolina’s fate.
It’s still very early in the season and Panthers’ have a chance to learn from their mistakes as they take on their NFC South rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their defense looked stout last week against the San Francisco 49ers. Even with only one sack logged, Tampa Bay had a quick pass rush. Despite allowing one offensive touchdown by the 49ers, they ended up falling 31-17 at home.
Here are three offensive keys in order for the Panthers to come away with a win:
Cam needs to be Cam: Against the Rams, Newton had zero passing or rushing touchdowns. Rushing only three times on Sunday, he finished the day with -2 rushing yards, which is unheard of for the run heavy quarterback. Another uncharacteristic stat for Newton? His farthest completed pass was for 17 yards. The lack of deep throws didn’t appear to be because of Newton’s limited mobility but rather decision making, whether that was on Newton’s side or Ron Rivera’s. There’s no denying Newton is a dual-threat, and the Panthers’ statistically win whenever he utilizes that skillset. Carolina is 8-11 in games in which Newton rushed for fewer than 10 yards. Newton didn’t look like himself this past Sunday, and that’s not going to cut it moving forward.
Protect Cam: Not all the blame can fall on Newton’s shoulders. The offensive line failed to protect him against the Rams. Newton was sacked three times after the offensive line failed to pick up on blitzes properly. The Bucs may have their issues, but pass rushing isn’t one of them. Against 49ers Jimmy Garappolo, they were able to force short, quick passes. There were many times the quarterback was forced to throw away the ball on the blitz. Garappolo averaged 2.31 seconds to throw, the second-quickest among all quarterbacks in Week 1, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. As Panthers’ fans saw on Sunday, short, quick passes are not always enough to win you the game.
Don’t only use McCaffrey: This may sound crazy. After all, McCaffrey was the main reason for the Panthers’ potential comeback against the Rams. He’s a great weapon for the Panthers and is on pace for the 1,000/1,000 record. However, the Panthers’ can’t solely rely on McCaffrey being their top receiver. When you have talent in young wide receivers like Curtis Samuel and Moore, use them. Carolina is 0-10 in games in which McCaffrey has seven catches or more. McCaffrey is a workhorse, but he can’t have all the load.
In order for the Panthers to come away with a win on Thursday, they simply must not beat themselves.