Key mo­ments of Pan­thers’ sea­son might give clues to the fu­ture

A look at the mo­ments that de­fined the Pan­thers’ 7-9 sea­son shows that some of them might tell the fu­ture, too, for Cam New­ton, Chris­tian McCaf­frey, Ron Rivera and oth­ers.

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JOURDAN RODRIGUE jro­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

It was hard to be­lieve that, af­ter a 6-2 start to the 2018 sea­son, the Carolina Pan­thers would fin­ish 7-9 and miss the play­offs by a wide mar­gin.

So much was go­ing right. So many of the ros­ter pieces im­por­tant to Carolina’s long-term fu­ture were play­ing well.

The of­fen­sive line, mi­nus its start­ing left and right tack­les, gave up a fran­chise-low 10 sacks through the first seven games. Quar­ter­back Cam New­ton had a ca­reer-high com­ple­tion per­cent­age with ca­reer-low in­ter­cep­tions thrown dur­ing that span.

Sec­ond-year run­ning back Chris­tian McCaf­frey was be­gin- ning to show just how much of the of­fense will ul­ti­mately run through him. He was tar­geted as a re­ceiver 15 times at Atlanta in Week 2, catch­ing 14 passes for 102 yards, and fol­lowed that up with a 184-yard rush­ing game in a vic­tory over Cincin- nati the fol­low­ing week.

Place­kicker Gra­ham Gano hit a 63-yard field goal to beat the New York Gi­ants in Week 5, a high point in the sea­son.

But just as that 63-yard field goal cov­ered a lead blown by the Pan­thers in the fourth quar­ter, win­ning those six games in the first half of the year cov­ered a lot of mis­takes that hurt the Pan­thers down the stretch.

EARLY IN­DI­CA­TORS

There were warn­ing signs that, in hind­sight, pointed to the seven-game los­ing streak that de­railed Carolina’s sea­son.

They be­gan as early as Week 2, in Carolina’s 31-24 loss to Atlanta. The de­fense missed an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic num­ber of tack­les as they al­lowed Tevin Cole­man to rush for 107 yards on 16 car­ries, with a 36-yard long. It was the first 100-yard rusher the de­fense had al­lowed in 21 games, the long­est run­stuff­ing streak in the NFL to that point.

But that wasn’t all. Fal­cons

quar­ter­back Matt Ryan rushed for two touch­downs, while the Pan­thers, fea­tur­ing the best short­yardage run­ner in the NFL in New­ton, elected to kick a 54-yard field goal on fourth and 3 in the first quar­ter, down seven. That jux­ta­po­si­tion was jar­ring.

The one-score loss also fore­shad­owed a prob­lem that would irk the Pan­thers down the stretch: The in­abil­ity to close close games. Six of the Pan­thers’ eight losses af­ter Week 2 were de­cided by seven points or less.

Those in­cluded a 23-17 road loss to Wash­ing­ton in Week 6, dur­ing which for­mer Pan­thers cor­ner­back Josh Nor­man in­ter­cepted New­ton and forced a fum­ble.

And then in a 52-21 Week 10 drub­bing at Pitts­burgh in prime time, the Pan­thers’ wheels fell off and their nearly his­toric slide be­gan.

DEFIN­ING THE SLIDE

Dur­ing the seven-game slide, head coach Ron Rivera of­ten re­peated that each loss came down to just a cou­ple of plays — a cou­ple of “missed op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

These were some of the key plays that de­fined that los­ing streak:

In the Week 10 loss to

● the Steel­ers, an early turnover and a big pass­ing play killed Carolina’s game plan. The Pan­thers had a 7-0 lead, scor­ing on their open­ing drive for the first time all sea­son.

But James Brad­berry was beaten by JuJu SmithSchus­ter for a 75-yard on the Steel­ers’ first of­fen­sive play, eras­ing the lead.

Then, Pitts­burgh “spied” New­ton so he couldn’t run on the first play of the Pan­thers’ sec­ond drive, send­ing line­backer TJ Watt as a de­layed rusher. Watt hit New­ton in the shoul­der area on his throw­ing arm, dis­rupt­ing a throw that was in­ter­cepted and re­turned for a score. New­ton was al­ready show­ing up on the in­jury re­port with shoul­der sore­ness. But that hit, and many more New­ton took in the lat­ter half of the year, only drew more con­cern about his throw­ing arm.

●Week 11’s loss to Detroit em­pha­sized the Pan­thers’ sea­son-long is­sues con­tain­ing chunk pass­ing plays. Brad­berry looked elite against some of the league’s top re­ceivers early in the year, but al­lowed Kenny Gol­la­day to make two big plays over the top — a 36-yard catch and a 19-yard touch­down.

Los­ing to Seat­tle in

Week 12 high­lighted thir­dand fourth-down de­fen­sive strug­gles. The Sea­hawks were 2 for 2 on fourth down, in­clud­ing a 35-yard touch­down pass given up by re­serve cor­ner Corn Elder. Seat­tle also con­verted long third downs with ease. Five of the Sea­hawks’ six con­verted third downs were chunk plays of 10plus yards, and one was a touch­down.

There were al­ready

ques­tions about New­ton’s shoul­der health af­ter the of­fense went away from uti­liz­ing the deep ball as heav­ily as it had in pre­vi­ous sea­sons. The ques­tions in­creased when New­ton popped back up on the in­jury re­port in Week 8, listed as “lim­ited” on Wed­nes­days and for some Thurs­day prac­tices. That looked like 2017, when New­ton was re­cov­er­ing from his off­sea­son shoul­der surgery.

Then came Week 13’s loss to Tampa Bay, when New­ton threw four in- ter­cep­tions — two in the fourth quar­ter — and was re­placed for a Hail Mary at­tempt for the sec­ond time in the sea­son. New­ton ul­ti­mately sat out of the fi­nal two games of the year to rest his shoul­der.

No­tably, this Tampa Bay game was not mem­o­rable for the plays called so much as the peo­ple call­ing them: Rivera took over the de­fen­sive play-call­ing full time in the 24-17 loss as ques­tions about his fu­ture cir­cu­lated.

●How well-known had the de­fense be­come for giv­ing up ex­plo­sive pass­ing plays by Week 14? So much so that Cleve­land rookie quar­ter­back Baker May­field threw deep on the Browns’ first of­fen­sive play. It went for 66 yards and set up a touch­down two plays later. May­field’s pass was the 13th pass­ing play of 20-plus yards given up by Carolina’s sec­ondary since Week 10, for a to­tal of 534 yards — 41 yards per play.

There wasn’t a lot to be

● ex­cited about by Week 15, but the 12-9 loss to New Or­leans did high­light the po­ten­tial of some young play­ers. McCaf­frey ran a trick play on fourth down, throw­ing a 55-yard touch­down pass to re­serve tight end Chris Man­hertz for Carolina’s only of­fen­sive touch­down. Rookie cor­ner­back Donte Jack­son had a “pick 2,” re­turn­ing an in­ter­cep­tion of Saints quar­ter­back Drew Brees on a two-point con­ver­sion for two points.

The feel­ing watch­ing

Carolina’s Week 16 loss to Atlanta was that of sick­en­ing fas­ci­na­tion. A nor­malper­son-sized quar­ter­back, backup Tay­lor Heinicke, took the kind of hits su­per­hu­man-sized New­ton had to en­dure weekly in the lat­ter half of the year. One such hit, ul­ti­mately a penalty on Fal­cons de­fen­sive end Grady Jar­rett, in­jured Heinicke’s left arm in the sec­ond quar­ter.

Carolina had to play its third quar­ter­back in as many weeks as un­drafted rookie Kyle Allen stepped in while Heinicke re­ceived med­i­cal at­ten­tion be­fore re-en­ter­ing the game Heinicke went on in­jured re­serve, giv­ing Allen his first NFL start in Week 17.

Like Heinicke the week be­fore, Allen had to leave the game af­ter tak­ing a vi­cious hit.

WIN RE­MOVES BAD TASTE, BUT NOT QUES­TIONS

The 33-14 Week 17 vic­tory at New Or­leans ush­ered out vet­eran cen­ter Ryan Kalil with­out the bit­ter taste of what would have been an eight-game los­ing streak in his mouth. Rivera made it clear in his postgame press con­fer­ence that he would be re­tain­ing his job, which a league source confirmed this week. A source close to the sit­u­a­tion told Ob­server that gen­eral man­ager Marty Hur­ney hadn’t been told any dif­fer­ent by own­er­ship, ei­ther. Ev­ery­body felt good. But the next morn­ing, it was hard to avoid the loom­ing ques­tions.

What will the Pan­thers do to over­haul their de­fense, and how deep will that go? Which free agents will be back in 2019? What is the plan to get New­ton healthy? And while Rivera and Hur­ney have the ben­e­fit of owner David Tep­per’s pa­tience for now, it’s hard to see the full coach­ing staff re­main­ing in­tact over these next few weeks.

Plus, the Pan­thers will pick at No. 16 in the first round of April’s NFL draft — from a 2019 class topheavy with de­fen­sive tal­ent.

The Pan­thers’ 7-9 sea­son was full of “missed op­por­tu­ni­ties,” as Rivera of­ten said.

To right the ship, the off­sea­son can’t be.

Buckle in.

JEFF SINER [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

This hit on Pan­thers quar­ter­back Cam New­ton by the Steel­ers’ T.J. Watt – and many more – was part of what de­fined the 2018 sea­son as well as Carolina’s Week 10 loss to Pitts­burgh.

KIRTHMON F. DOZIER TNS

Lions re­ceiver Kenny Gol­la­day makes the game-win­ning catch against Pan­thers cor­ner­back James Brad­berry dur­ing the Week 11 game in Detroit. The Pan­thers’ strug­gles to con­tain big plays over the top were es­pe­cially ev­i­dent dur­ing a seven-game los­ing streak.

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