Carolina Panthers

Statistics show a so-so Panthers defense in loss to Rams. Reality is somewhat kinder.

What we learned about the Panthers, Cam Newton after game 1 against the Rams

We break down Cam Newton and the Panthers after their first regular season game against the Los Angeles Rams. The Panthers lost and face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Thursday in Charlotte.
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We break down Cam Newton and the Panthers after their first regular season game against the Los Angeles Rams. The Panthers lost and face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Thursday in Charlotte.

If you only scan the boxscore of the Carolina Panthers’ season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams, one glaring conclusion would present itself naturally:

Like, say, how the Rams emerged from the offensive smog that smothered them in Super Bowl 53 and dropped 30 big ones on the Panthers.

And that’s not totally unfair. After scoring a meager three points against the New England Patriots in February, the second-highest scoring offense of 2018 once again drove like a well-oiled machine. Even though star running back Todd Gurley III didn’t score, he racked up 97 rushing yards at a 6.9 yards-per-carry clip. Receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp shredded the Panthers for 15 combined catches. On top of all that, quarterback Jared Goff only was sacked once ... and he took the blame for that lone error.

Which all reflects poorly on the Panthers defense — at least at first glance.

But diving deeper into the schemes and actual flow of the game, you begin to understand why Carolina’s defenders weren’t all doom-and-gloom in the locker room postgame.

“We felt like it was clicking from the first three-and-out we had,” cornerback Donte Jackson said of the defense. “We felt like we were on a good track in this game, and it showed ... We’ve just got to finish, take away some of those self mistakes.”

Third down is an apt place to start analyzing. The Rams converted 9-of-17 third downs, which on paper seems like a brutal margin for Carolina. But a deeper dive reveals not all those conversions were as harmful as the stat implies.

In the first half, Carolina allowed four third-down conversions and stopped five others. On those five drives, the Rams scored just six total points. Los Angeles did score a touchdown in the second quarter, but only after a fumbled screen with Cam Newton and DJ Moore gave the Rams the ball 10 yards out from the end zone.

“We started off stopping them on third down,” defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “We’ve just got to be better as the game goes on. We’ve got to be consistent with what we’re doing.”

Therein lies the problem.

In the second half, the Rams were much more successful converting those critical downs. Much of that came as the Panthers played six defensive backs at once in a 3-2-6 scheme they hadn’t shown all summer. That meant cornerbacks Jackson and James Bradberry were on the field, as were safeties Eric Reid and Tre Boston, with nickel Javien Elliott and corner/safety Ross Cockrell in as the extra guys.

“The group (with six defensive backs) really does give us good versatility,” coach Ron Rivera said. “It was some of the things that we tried to create some matchups.”

And while all those defensive backs helped counter the Rams’ pass-inclined offense — Los Angeles threw 39 times compared with 28 designed runs — it did give Goff more time to pass with less pressure on him.

That’s key because of how differently Goff plays with and without defenders in his face. According to Football Outsiders’ analytics, Goff was ranked the No. 5 quarterback in 2018 when not facing pressure; but he fell all the way to No. 24 when pressured, one of the largest drops of any qualified passer.

McCoy admitted he was “a little bit” surprised at how often the team played that sixth defensive back, although he agreed the formation helped early on.

“I think we’ll be better if we rush more four-man, but with the offense that they ran, coach wanted an extra DB on the field, which was fine because it was working for us early on,” McCoy said. “I think we get in situations with certain teams, and (against) other team’s schemes where we can rush four, we’ll get a lot more pressure.”

Defensive end Mario Addison agreed with McCoy that rushing four players instead of three made a substantial difference in the pressure Goff faced.

“They were getting the ball out fast,” Addison said. “We need to come up with a better game plan as far as having all four of your best rushers on the field at one time instead of three.

“When we started rushing four men instead of three, we started putting better pressure on the quarterback.”

Both McCoy and Addison also said they were somewhat taken aback by how often the Rams ran the ball out of the shotgun, something they didn’t have a tendency to do last season en route to the Super Bowl.

In addition to the third downs and rushing situations, a few other defensive tweaks offer some optimism for the future. A number of Rams fumbles ended up bouncing back to them as Panthers players raced to fall on them. There were a handful of sloppy penalties, which multiple players attributed to it being the first week of the season.

“It’s the first game. You’re going to have some things happen that you don’t want to happen,” Jackson said. “If you want everything to go right for your team, you’re watching the wrong sport.”

Overall, Carolina held Goff to 186 yards passing, which would have tied for his second-fewest at any point last season. Bradberry recorded his first interception of the year and had a shot at a second. Before a second-half outburst, the Panthers only allowed 34 rushing yards in the first half.

So in the locker room postgame, while there were muffled explanations for what went wrong, there wasn’t despair. There was a sense of, “Look at what we did do, not what we didn’t.”

McCoy said as much himself.

“You see the negatives, but you take the positives. We gave ourselves a shot at the end,” he said. “We have a really good team. We really do. We gave the NFC champs all they wanted. We just made too many mistakes. They made more plays than us at the end.

“We have Thursday night coming up, so we’ll get it fixed. ... Definitely planning to see those guys again.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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