After big im­prove­ment, Pan­thers’ red zone ef­fi­ciency fal­ter­ing

The Charlotte Observer - - Front Page - BY MAR­CEL LOUIS-JACQUES

mlouis­[email protected]­lot­teob­

Of­fense hasn’t been the Carolina Pan­thers prob­lem dur­ing their four-game los­ing streak, al­though they’re not with­out their flaws on that side of the ball.

Los­ing streak aside, Carolina’s al­ready-resur­gent of­fense ranks fourth-best in the NFL over the past four weeks with 1,549 to­tal yards, which av­er­ages out to 387 yards per game. That’s up from the 372- yard av­er­age over the first eight games. By them­selves, both yards per game fig­ures would rep­re­sent the sec­ond-high­est sin­gle-sea­son mark un­der Ron Rivera.

But yards mean noth­ing with­out points, and more of­ten than not teams earn their points in the red zone.

For­tu­nately for the Pan­thers (6- 6), red zone ef­fi­ciency is their most no­table area of im­prove­ment un­der first-year of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Norv Turner — de­spite a sig­nif­i­cant drop off over the past four weeks.

Carolina’s red zone of­fense was the most ef­fi­cient in the league from Week 1 to Week 9, scor­ing a touch­down on 81 per­cent of its trips in­side the 20yard line. Its 21 touch­downs and 1.4 per­cent turnover rate each tied for fifth-best in the NFL.

Con­sid­er­ing the Pan­thers only con­verted 54 per­cent of their red zone trips into touch­downs last sea­son, the im­prove­ment was more than dra­matic — it was ab­surd.

And,. Turner said, it wasn’t sus­tain­able.

“I think you go in dif­fer­ent cy­cles dur­ing the sea­son,” Turner said Thurs­day. “We were con­vert­ing touch­downs at such a high rate, you’d like to think that’s go­ing to con­tinue but it’s usu­ally a third-down con­ver-

sion, a throw and a catch — a one-play thing, that’s the dif­fer­ence. We hit a bunch of those ... you’re not al­ways go­ing to do that.

“We were two out of three last week in the red zone. Ob­vi­ously, against Seat­tle we missed a fourth-and-1, we threw an in­ter­cep­tion, in the twominute we ran out of time — those things are go­ing to hap­pen dur­ing the sea­son. We work hard on the red zone. We have a good plan and we’ve been do­ing a great job of get­ting the ball into the end zone.”

Of Carolina’s red zone touch­downs, seven came on third down and nine came from out­side the 10. Only twice — a Chrsi­tian McCaf­frey fum­ble in Week 1 and a turnover on downs dur­ing a po­ten­tial go-ahead drive in Week 6 — did Carolina fail to come away from the red zone with a touch­down or field goal.

But as Turner sug­gested, that wasn’t sus­tain­able.

Since their los­ing streak be­gan in Week 10, the Pan­thers have only con­verted 63 per­cent of their red zone trips into touch­downs — good for 17thbest in the NFL. While only three of their 16 trips — a missed field goal in Week 11 and an in­ter­cep­tion and turnover on downs in Week 12 — didn’t end in points, the missed op­por­tu­ni­ties came in games the Pan­thers lost by a com­bined four points.

Carolina’s de­fense bears the brunt of the team’s strug­gles over the past four weeks, but its of­fense has nearly been good enough to over­come its coun­ter­part’s short­com­ings.

Re­vers­ing the trend in the red zone will be crit­i­cal for the Pan­thers as they look to end a po­ten­tially sea­son-de­rail­ing los­ing streak.

The op­por­tu­ni­ties to im­prove are there — the Pan­thers have av­er­aged one more red zone trip per game over the past four weeks than they did dur­ing their 6-2 start, and their nine touch­downs are the third-most in the NFL in that span.

Can Carolina turn things around this week­end against Cleve­land (4-7-1)? Maybe.

The Browns, though, boast the league’s thirdbest red zone de­fense since Week 10.

Mar­cel Louis-Jacques, 704-358-5015: @Marcel_LJ

DAVID T. FOSTER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­

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