Plays to Love, Plays to Hate highlights the plays that have a significant impact in swinging momentum and impacting the eventual outcome of the game. There’s always plenty to hate about NFL officiating, so we will only focus on the plays on the field, not the refs. Let’s review how the Panthers kicked their way to Matt Rhule’s first NFL victory.
Three plays to love
Donte’s 2nd quarter interception: In the waning moments of the first half the Chargers had driven down to the Carolina 38 and were poised to chip into the Panthers 15-7 lead. With just 22 second left Donte Jackson jumped a deep route, made the interception, then turned on the jets to return the pick 66 yards to the Los Angeles eight yard line. Not only did Donte likely take at least a field goal off the board for the Chargers, his great play allowed the Panthers to kick a field goal to take an 18-7 halftime lead.
JJ Jansen downs a 4th quarter punt: The Panthers led 21-16 with 1:55 left in the game and were forced to punt. Joseph Charlton’s kick bounced inside the 10 and looked like it would roll into the end zone for a touchback, but long snapper JJ Jansen somehow made an incredibly headsy, athletic play to gain possession of the ball and tip-toe on the end zone to down it inside the one yard line. Jansen’s clutch special team’s play meant the Chargers would have to go 99 yards to win the game, and Carolina’s defense prevented that from happening (but just barely).
Chargers botched hook and ladder on final play: On the game’s final play the Chargers had the ball at the Carolina 28. Justin Herbert connected with Keenan Allen at the 14 yard line and every Panthers secondary player swarmed to Allen to make a game-winning tackle. Allen secured the pass and immediately looked to lateral to Austin Eleker who was breaking toward the sideline on a designed hook and ladder. Eleker couldn’t secure the lateral, but if he had it’s quite possible the Chargers running back would’ve scored a game-winning, walk-off touchdown. It appeared the only person between Eleker and the end zone was Rasual Douglas, and Douglas’ momentum was carrying him the wrong way (here’s the video).
Three plays to hate
Blocked extra point in 2nd quarter: The Panthers scored a second quarter touchdown to go up 15-7, pending the extra point. Joey Slye’s extra point was blocked as Isaac Rochelle slipped through a gap up the middle and got his hand on the football. Instead of a nine-point, two-score lead, the botched point after attempt meant the Chargers could tie the game in one possession. The Panthers offense needs all the points it can get and can’t afford to keep failing to convert extra points.
Defense can’t get a 4th quarter stop: Carolina led 21-10 with 9:57 left in the game. The Panthers defense forced rookie quarterback Justin Herbert into a 3rd-and-4 from the Chargers own 31 yard line. The Panthers went into a soft zone and nobody checked Hunter Henry who made an easy seven-yard gain for a first down. Five plays later the Panthers defense gave up a 3rd-and-4 conversion on a screen pass. Three plays after that Carolina’s defense forced a 3rd-and-6 but allowed Herbert to easily scramble for a first down. Five plays later the Chargers scored a touchdown on 3rd-and-14 to cut the Panthers lead to 21-16 (after a failed two-point conversion) with 4:39 left. That’s right...with a chance to virtually close out the game, the Panthers defense gave up a 16-play, 75 yard drive in which Los Angeles’s rookie quarterback converted on all four of the third downs he faced.
Bosa’s 4th quarter sack means punt, not field goal: The Panthers had the ball and led 21-16 with just two minutes remaining in the game. Facing 3rd-and-5 from the Chargers 32, Carolina was already in field goal range to increase their lead to eight points. All the Panthers had to do was avoid a sack, which, of course, they failed to do. Backup left tackle Trent Scott was left on an island to block Joey Bosa, who is arguably the league’s best pass rusher. Bosa pushed Scott straight back into Teddy Bridgewater and dropped the Panthers quarterback for an eight yard loss, forcing a punt instead of a field goal attempt for an eight point lead. Thankfully, Carolina’s defense did just enough to close out the game with a victory.
Closing it out and summing it up
I feel bad leaving out so many other possible Plays to Love. Brian Burns first quarter strip sack was a thing of beauty because it reminded us Panthers defensive players can actually get to the quarterback, and Burns had a solid day overall. I loved Shaq Thompson making a hustle play to force a fumble from behind with his thigh (somehow?). Props also have to go to Teddy Bridgewater connecting with DJ Moore for a 38-yard gain on the final play of what had been a lackluster third quarter. The offense had fallen asleep and needed this shot in the arm. It’s a good day when there are too many Plays to Love.
We need to remember just how fortunate the Panthers were on the final play of the game when the Chargers fumbled the hook and ladder. While we will never know for sure if Austin Eleker would have scored or not, he sure had a sea of green grass ahead of him and a lot of Panthers defensive backs running the wrong direction. I continue to love the effort I see from this team, even when missing their best offensive player (Christian McCaffrey), most important offensive lineman (Russell Okung), and most accomplished defensive player (Kawann Short).
Congratulations to coach Matt Rhule for his first NFL victory! The Panthers now stand at 1-2 and the foundation continues to be laid for a more competitive future.