Panthers come up short for second consecutive week against Buccaneers

 By Zach Goins

September 20, 2020

Photo: AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio

After a less than ideal start to Sunday’s matchup with the Buccaneers, the Panthers were able to put together a late rally before ultimately falling to Tampa Bay 31-17.

For the second week in a row, the Panthers offense came alive in the second half to make things interesting. There was the methodical 13-play drive, the deep bomb to wide receiver Robby Anderson, and, of course, the late Christian McCaffrey touchdown. It felt eerily familiar, considering the Panthers did all the same things last week. Ultimately, the result was the same too, and it was too little too late. 

The loss drops head coach Matt Rhule to 0-2 in his young NFL career, as the Panthers are still searching for their first win of 2020.

“Not happy about our penalties, not happy about turnovers, and with all that being said, you know, nine penalties four giveaways, and it’s a one score game in the fourth quarter,” Rhule said following the loss. “We have to find a way to overcome that and build off of the competitive nature that we seem to have, but at the same time, we have got to become a better football team in terms of playing cleaner.”

Here are some takeaways from Sunday’s loss:

A disastrous start

Long before the Panthers attempted late-game heroics, anything that could go wrong did go wrong for Carolina in the first quarter. Joe Brady’s exciting offense from Week 1 was nowhere to be found. Instead, it was replaced by a unit incapable of holding onto the ball.

After the Panthers’ defense forced a three-and-out on Tampa Bay’s first possession, Carolina took over and Teddy Bridgewater had the offense clicking. It looked like the Panthers were picking up right where they left off following last week’s explosive fourth quarter. That is, until Bridgewater overthrew running back Christian McCaffrey on a screen pass that was intercepted by Tampa Bay’s Jordan Whitehead. 

The Bucs answered by marching their way down the field and into the end zone– thanks in large part to a bone-headed personal foul on rookie defensive tackle Derrick Brown that extended the drive. Then, with a new drive and a shot at redemption, Bridgewater was sacked by Antoine Winfield and coughed up the ball again. The next play, Brady connected with wide receiver Mike Evans on a 23-yard touchdown pass to establish a 14-0 Tampa Bay lead.

“The one screen just got away from me. I was a little pissed about that,” Bridgewater said. “But the fumble, just stepping up in the pocket trying to find my guy, exhausting the progression. Those guys make plays, too.”

Bridgewater threw a second interception early in the fourth quarter on a pass intended for wide receiver DJ Moore.

“I take supreme pride in taking care of the football, and I had three turnovers today,” Bridgewater said. “That’s not the way I play this game.”

Mike Evans

With Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin sidelined due to a concussion, all eyes were on Evans as Brady’s go-to target. He did not disappoint.

After only catching one pass for two yards in last week’s season opener, Evans hauled in seven passes for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers.

The Panthers got starting cornerback Donte Jackson back in the lineup this week, but even his return couldn’t slow down Evans, who scored his lone touchdown against Jackson. 

“I kind of knew the ball was coming,” Jackson said about the touchdown. “He hit me with a little stutter-and-go, and that didn’t quite get me out of position. I was still able to play with the stutter-and-go, I didn’t really bite on the stutter, but 12 (Brady) made a good throw. He saw me high on it, so he just threw it back shoulder and 13 (Evans) got his big body in the way and made a play.” 

However, Jackson did make his presence known with a third quarter interception to notch the Panthers’ first of the season. The pick helped set the Panthers up for their first touchdown of the day.

“I was trying to just go out there and turn the momentum for my team,” Jackson said of his interception. “I got the chance to play high with a little vision in a deep zone and just got 12 to make a mistake and I got to go get it.”

Panthers try and get too cute

The story of last week’s loss all came down to the decision not to hand the ball off to McCaffrey on fourth-and-1. It looks like the Panthers haven’t learned their lesson yet.

Late in the second quarter trailing 14-0 with the ball at the Tampa Bay 36, the Panthers were facing a fourth-and-2. The offense was stuck in no man’s land– too close to punt the ball away, but too far to attempt a field goal. As a result, it was clear to everyone watching at home that the Panthers would likely go for it on fourth down, especially considering the 14-point deficit. Still, Rhule opted to send the punt team out, but instead of kicking the ball away, there was a direct snap to rookie Jeremy Chinn. The Bucs weren’t fooled, and Chinn was stuffed for a loss, failing to convert the trick play and turning the ball over. 

Through two weeks, we’ve seen the Panthers coaching staff consistently overthink simple situations and end up making costly mistakes. Once again, the choice not to hand the ball off to McCaffrey, arguably the best running back in the league, in such a critical situation was puzzling. The choice to bluff a punt when everyone in the stadium and at home knew what was coming, even more baffling.

Three plays later, Brady showed the Panthers how to properly execute a cutesy play, connecting with Justin Watson for a 36-yard gain on a flea flicker. 

In the third quarter, the Panthers finally wised up and gave McCaffrey the ball on first-and-goal from the one. The result? A Carolina touchdown. Then again on a fourth-and-two early in the fourth quarter, a pitch to McCaffrey led to another touchdown. 

McCaffrey looking for more help

Another week, another game carried by McCaffrey. He may not have put up a lot, totaling just 88 scrimmage yards, but the All-Pro back found the end zone twice for the Panthers’ only touchdowns. What’s even more worrying is the fact that McCaffrey left the game with an ankle injury early in the fourth quarter and didn’t return. After the game Rhule wasn’t able to give any update on McCaffrey’s status.

“It’s always tough when you don’t have one of your best players on the field, but our guys did a great job just stepping up,” Bridgewater said of the team’s response to McCaffrey’s injury. “Mike Davis did a great job coming out of the backfield catching the ball for us, and when his number was called he made some plays.”

Other than McCaffrey, though, all the other dangerous weapons that make up Carolina’s offense were held in check until things got desperate late in the game. Bridgewater threw two interceptions and coughed up a fumble. Wide receivers Robby Anderson and DJ Moore look impressive on the stat sheet, recording 109 and 120 receiving yards, respectively, but the majority of that yardage came after McCaffrey left the game and when the Panthers were in passing mode playing catch up. 

Two games into the season we have yet to really see the Panthers offense gel as a cohesive unit. We’ve heard the hype behind its potential, but it hasn’t quite delivered as expected. With McCaffrey’s injury status unknown heading into Week 3, the offense needs to find answers soon.

Update: Christian McCaffrey is expected to be out 4-6 weeks with a high-ankle sprain.

The Panthers travel to Los Angeles next Sunday to take on the Chargers at 4:05 p.m. on CBS.

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