Three weeks into the 2016 NFL season, the Carolina Panthers have already lost as many games this year as they did over the entirety of last season, including the Super Bowl. What has changed for a team that came into this season with such high expectations?
Carolina looked unstoppable in 2015 as they steamrolled opponents in 15 regular season games, with the only loss of the year coming against the Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers had handed the Falcons a demoralizing loss just a couple of weeks before, shutting Atlanta out and winning 38-0.
But when the Panthers visited Atlanta in Week 16, the hapless Falcons, a team that started the season 6-1 and then hit a six-game losing skid, were able to throw the Panthers off their game enough to get a win at home.
The Falcons did so by blitzing Newton consistently, getting him off his spot and disrupting his game. Atlanta finished dead last in the league last season for sacks with just 19, but two of those sacks came in the win against the Panthers — against a quarterback who is extremely difficult to bring down.
The Broncos did the same thing in Super Bowl 50, attacking Newton consistently and with a defense that led the league in sacks in 2015. It worked for Denver, as they sacked Newton five times, forcing two fumbles and holding Carolina’s offense to 10 measly points.
This season, the Panthers have looked outmatched
The loss to Atlanta in Week 16 looked like an anomaly for the Panthers as Cam and company rolled through the playoffs and to a Super Bowl bid.
The Panthers were favored by oddsmakers to win a Week 1 Super Bowl 50 rematch against the Broncos. While the season opener ended up being a closer game and much more exciting than Denver’s 24-10 victory in February, the Broncos attacked Newton relentlessly throughout the game, and the Panthers couldn’t get it done, losing 20-21.
The only win so far this season for the Panthers came in Week 2 to a very bad San Francisco 49ers team. Carolina turned the ball over four times — three fumbles and a Newton pick — and the 49ers are just bad enough that the Panthers were still able to win.
Week 3 brought another loss, this time to the Minnesota Vikings. Because Minnesota’s defense is so good, there’s no shame in losing to the Vikings. Following a familiar script, Newton got sacked eight times. The Vikings forced Carolina into many mistakes, which eventually cost the Panthers the game.
According to head coach Ron Rivera, the Panthers aren’t losing because the team isn’t as good as it was last year. The Panthers are losing because players are failing to execute.
“The thing we’ve got to do more so than anything else is we’ve got to continue to make plays, and we just didn’t, and unfortunately, it got us,” Rivera said about the loss to the Vikings.
Newton’s taking too many hits
If a team wants to beat the Panthers, hitting Cam Newton is the best way to get it done.
Last year, the Panthers allowed just 33 sacks, but Newton is taking a beating this year. He’s been sacked 12 times so far, putting the team on pace to allow 64 sacks this season.
Newton insists that’s just part of the game.
“I play a physical sport, so it requires a lot of hitting, and I’m just trying to maximize everything that Coach is asking me to do,” Newton said.
Still, the team doesn’t play as well when Newton’s getting hit. It showed in the singular regular season loss to Atlanta last year, in the Super Bowl, and in both of the Panthers’ losses this season. In Week 1 against the Broncos, he was sacked three times and hit multiple other times, absorbing several controversial helmet-to-helmet shots.
Teams know they have to handle Newton differently.
"They have an advantage with Cam," Broncos safety T.J. Ward said after the Week 1 game. "He's the quarterback and you can't account for that on defense. They have one more blocker when he runs the ball. If you're going to run your quarterback, you're going to have to take the repercussions that come with it. That's potentially getting him hurt or you see him get hit a couple times today.”
Newton isn’t getting the ball out as quickly as he has in the past, and that’s part of the reason he’s taking so many hits. Rivera says that’s something that needs to change.
“Cam’s competitive. Cam wants to complete every pass he throws or every chance he tries to throw,” Rivera said. “He’s just going to have to learn that sometimes you can’t hold it that long. You’ve just got to dump it. We’ll line up another time. He just — he wants to win, he wants to make things happen, and he’s very competitive.”
Do the Panthers miss Jonathan Stewart?
The Panthers are averaging 146 yards per game on the ground, which is good for third in the NFL through three weeks. They’re getting it done on the ground even with Stewart sidelined with injury.
Carolina was excellent on the ground last year, also, with 2282 rushing yards. Of those, 989 came from Stewart over 13 games. Stewart suffered an ankle injury in Week 1, and then added a hamstring injury in Week 2 against the 49ers.
The Panthers ran all over the 49ers, racking up 176 yards against a Niners team that has surrendered an average of 122.7 yards per game on the ground this season. Against the Vikings, with Stewart out, the Panthers managed just 105 yards on the ground, with the leading rusher, Cameron Artis-Payne, rushing for just 47 yards.
Stewart’s absence isn’t just felt in the rushing attack, though. He’s a sure blocker, and he’s missed in that regard.
Rivera said that, while the team misses Stewart, the Panthers have to be able to win games without him.
“We lost Jonathan last year at the end of the season for a few games, and Cameron [Artis-Payne] came in and handled his business, and I thought Fozzy [Whittaker] did a nice job and so did Michael [Tolbert],” Rivera said. “So again, we’ve played without Jonathan. We’ve won without Jonathan, so the thing we have to do is get right back out there and keep playing hard.”
The passing game hasn’t developed as expected
The return of Kelvin Benjamin from injury was expected to be a boost to the Panthers offense, and the Vikings managed to totally shut him down in Week 3.
Newton thinks the solution to getting Benjamin more involved in the offense is simple. When asked how he would make sure Benjamin got some catches against the Falcons in Week 4, his response was to the point.
“Throw it to him,” Newton said.
Benjamin is an asset because he’s really difficult to cover. He’s 6’5 and 220 pounds and very physical, and the Vikings matched him up with cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who’s not as tall as Benjamin, but could match up with him physically.
The Vikings also disguised their defensive looks and used press coverage quite a bit against Benjamin, and that’s not something a lot of teams would be willing to risk against a receiver with Benjamin’s size and speed. It worked, so other teams may choose to follow that blueprint. The Panthers will have to adjust.
Tight end Greg Olsen was the team’s leading receiver in 2015 and remains a favorite target of Newton’s, but Carolina can’t afford for teams to shut down Benjamin like the Vikings did.
For the Panthers, it all comes down to execution.
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Carolina’s defense is still dominant, even taken in the context of the competition they’ve faced, but they’ve let up at inopportune times. The same thing has happened on offense and special teams. Avoidable penalties, mistakes, and lapses are keeping the Panthers from winning games.
Rivera said those struggles with execution are the team’s biggest issue.
“We lost a little bit of momentum [against the Vikings],” Rivera said. “We gave up a sack for a safety. Unfortunately, gave up a punt return for a touchdown, and made a couple of costly mistakes. You can’t do that if you expect to win football games, especially against very good football teams like Minnesota.”
Those mistakes and failures to execute are keeping the Panthers from succeeding, according to Rivera.
“When you get an opportunity to do things, you’ve got to capitalize. You’ve got good field position, you’ve got to put points on the board,” Rivera said.
“We had a couple holding calls that were very costly. We had one that was a 20-yard run that took us out of the hole. Instead, we stay in the hole, and they get a sack for a safety. Another one is we dump the ball off to a receiver or to a running back, he turns it into a touchdown, and we got a push in the back call. We can’t make mistakes like that. That’s why — very honestly — we’ve made mistakes that cost us a game.”
The Panthers finished last season with a +22 turnover differential, and they’re -2 on the season so far this year. Carolina’s opponents have accepted a total of 26 penalties assessed to the Panthers this season, which is the fifth-most in the league.
“Losing is still not good. I don’t care how you really cut it,” Newton said. “If you want to be labeled a good loser, good luck with that. Nothing’s changed about me.”
If Newton and the Panthers can do those things — clean up the mistakes, get better protection, get the ball out quicker — a win in Atlanta this week would go a long way toward putting their season back on track.