New-look Panthers fall short in season opener against the Raiders

By Zach Goins

Photo: AP Photo / Brian Blanco

September 13, 2020

The Panthers kicked off a new season on Sunday against the Raiders, but the end result was something fans have become all too accustomed to over the last year, as Carolina came up short against Las Vegas 34-30. 

Despite the loss, Sunday’s contest was a promising outing for first year head coach Matt Rhule and the new-look Panthers. With so many unknowns, a competitive game, a fourth quarter lead and 30 points are all more than many fans likely expected.

That’s exactly the message Rhule shared with his players following the loss.

“I told them they should be disappointed, but they certainly shouldn’t be discouraged,” Rhule said post-game. “To battle back from some early big plays, to fight, scratch and claw to take the lead back at the end of the game, I was proud of the guys. We were just a play away.”

Here are some takeaways from Sunday’s loss:

Panthers young defense gets tested 

We knew Carolina’s offense would be able to score points this year, but we also knew the defense would be giving up plenty of points– particularly in the secondary.

Raiders quarterback Derrick Carr made it clear that he would be testing rookie cornerback Troy Pride Jr. early and often, sending several warning shots his way before connecting with a wide open Henry Ruggs on a 45-yard gain. That secondary situation was only made worse when No. 1 cornerback Donte Jackson left the game midway through the first quarter with an ankle injury and did not return. 

That meant Carolina’s starting cornerbacks were a rookie in Pride, and Rasul Douglas, a former Eagle signed by the Panthers only seven days ago. Carr showed no signs of slowing down, tossing a 23-yard touchdown over Pride to wide receiver Nelson Agholor late in the second quarter.

“Speed of the game, running with guys I think I was pretty comfortable,” Pride said after seeing his first NFL action. “Just getting off blocks, being faster to cracks or other scenarios where the running back had the ball, that’s something I could definitely be faster at.”

The Raiders passing game slowed down a bit in the second half, then on a key third down midway through the fourth quarter, Douglas proved why the Panthers decided to pick him up with a key pass break up to force a Raiders punt.

The stop ended up giving Carolina the ball back to set up a crucial fourth quarter touchdown.

What ended up being more detrimental to the defense was the Raiders’ ground game. Running back Josh Jacobs racked up 93 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, as Las Vegas punished what looked like an exhausted Panthers defense.

“He runs with tremendous pad level. He runs through tackles,” Rhule said of Jacobs, following the loss. “He’s a good back, they have a powerful offensive line. Obviously, we have to improve in terms of our run defense.”

Panthers linebacker Tahir Whitehead, a former Raider, is familiar with Jacobs’ capabilities, but Whitehead said the running back’s performance Sunday was more a result of the Panthers own failures.

“When it all boils down, it was more so us not executing the tackling technique well enough,” Whitehead said. “You can make the excuse, ‘Oh, it’s the first game,’ this and that, but that’s not good enough.”

Carolina was fourth-worst in the league last season when it came to stopping the run, and the team is still looking for answers early this year.

The offense’s second half explosion

The Panthers offense was clicking in the first half. They may not have lit up the scoreboard, totaling just 15 points, but they were able to secure scores on each of their four first-half possessions. Then, to start the second half, the offense stalled out with back-to-back punts and the unit struggled to get things rolling again. 

Enter Christian McCaffrey. In the first half it seemed like the Raiders had his number, holding him to just 37 yards and one touchdown on the ground, plus one catch for 11 yards. But in the second half, the All-Pro reminded everyone who they were dealing with, punching in another touchdown and finishing the game with 134 all-purpose yards

McCaffrey wasn’t the only one getting back on track, though. Bridgewater connected with wide receiver Robby Anderson on a 75-yard bomb to reclaim the lead at 30-27.

“We had run a double move, a play like that earlier in the game, and the corner jumped it, so we knew coming back to it that it would be there,” Anderson said of his touchdown, which was the Panthers’ longest play of the day. “It played out perfect in man coverage, and we just executed.”

Offensive coordinator Joe Brady promised fans an exciting offense, and while the Panthers may not have come out on top with a win, they certainly lived up to that expectation, delivering a dramatic back-and-forth game.

The highs and lows of fourth down

Late in the third quarter trailing 27-15, the Panthers were in need of a spark. The offense was beginning to show signs of life when wide receiver Curtis Samuel fell short on third down to set up a critical fourth-and-1.

Down two scores, Rhule opted to take a page from his predecessor’s playbook and go for it. McCaffrey stuffed it up the middle to give the Panthers a fresh set of downs, and nine plays later, McCaffrey was in the end zone to make it a one-score game.

The decision to roll the dice on fourth down paid off, and ultimately proved to be what got Carolina back into the ball game.

With under two minutes left, the Panthers’ fourth down luck ran out. With the game on the line, Carolina opted to put the ball in fullback Alex Armah’s hands on fourth-and-1 rather than McCaffrey. The result was a turnover on downs that sealed the game’s fate.

“It was a call that everyone had confidence in,” Bridgewater said. “Oakland, those guys get paid to make football plays, too, so I don’t want to take anything away from them”

After the game Rhule was asked why McCaffrey’s number wasn’t called with the game hanging in the balance.

“It’s a great question,” Rhule said. “That’s something I have to think about walking away from this. When you write up who to blame for that, the only person you can blame is the head coach.”

McCaffrey, always careful not to sound self-centered, said he had full faith in Armah to convert.

“Alex is a heck of fullback and is very capable of getting that,” McCaffrey said. “It’s a play we’ve scored on before, it’s a play we ran before and had success but it is what it is. Maybe they make an adjustment, maybe they don’t, but all I know is that it doesn’t matter. It happened and we’ve got to move on.”

The Panthers take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday at 1 p.m. on FOX.

Check out the full Raiders vs. Panthers game highlights on the NFL YouTube channel.

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