Carolina Panthers  

 

Carolina Panthers (1-2) struggling in new role as the hunted

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As convenient as it would be to categorize Carolina's 22-10 loss to Minnesota as simply a bad day at the office, that would be a mistake. The Panthers now have dropped as many games as they lost all of last season (playoffs included) and they struggled to put away a flawed San Francisco group in their lone win so far. This isn't solely about a team falling short in a revealing early-season game. It's about the Panthers trying to figure out who they're going to be less than a year after completing the most impressive campaign in franchise history.

The scary part about what happened inside Bank of America Stadium isn't that Carolina lost at home for the first time since Nov. 16. 2014. It's that Minnesota beat the home team with a formula that has worked so well for the Panthers in the past. The Vikings were the team that didn't flinch in the face of adversity, especially not when Carolina rolled out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Minnesota clearly believed in its game plan and it aided this team when it mattered most.

For all the fun the Panthers displayed while going 15-1 in the 2015 regular season, it was easy to forget how blue collar this squad was, how much it relied on grit and efficiency to match the stylish showmanship of eventual league MVP Cam Newton. These were the very things that were missing at crunch time against the Vikings. As Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said after the defeat, "We can't turn the ball over. We can't miss opportunities. We can't have penalties that take away opportunities. Again, it's going to start with me ... I'm going to make sure things get corrected and that's just the way it has to be. We got beat because we didn't do the things we were supposed to do and they just kept plugging away."

It's important to note that Rivera knew this season would bring different mental challenges for a team that dominated as the Panthers did last year. At one point during training camp, he even called his squad together for a stern lecture one day because he felt a discernible complacency creeping into their practice habits. Rivera knew veterans like Newton, tight end Greg Olsen and linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis wouldn't treat success like a birthright. The head coach couldn't be so certain about his younger players, most of whom weren't around when this team was mired in mediocrity.

True, Carolina had plenty of good times last season. These days the Panthers feel more like a group that is carrying the weight of heavier expectations and learning that every opponent is going to give them their best shot. Hell, the Vikings already have lost some of their best players to injuries -- including All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson -- and they never felt like this wasn't a winnable game. The Panthers, on the other hand, wilted the longer the contest went on, a fact that left many of them mystified afterward.

Carolina controlled the action early but never generated another point after the first quarter. Minnesota scored on a safety, a 54-yard punt return by Marcus Sherels, a 15-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford to tight end Kyle Rudolph and a couple fourth-quarter field goals. Nothing special, but plenty good enough just the same.

"That's the story of the night," Olsen said. "Once we got anything going, we kind of kicked ourselves. [We got] moved back and then had a safety and then [a] punt [return for a touchdown]. Offensively, we kind of took the wind out of ourselves. We were bad. Just all around, we were really bad."

The Panthers clearly understand that this is no time to hit the panic button. They still have a splendid mix of strong coaching, deep talent and extensive experience to draw upon as they go about the task of correcting their issues. What's most critical is that they address the most glaring problems that keep popping up at the worst possible times. After three games, it's not that difficult to identify those.

One major area of concern has to be protecting Newton. The Denver Broncos lit him up in Carolina's season-opening loss -- raising questions about whether officials are too lenient when defenders take shots at him -- and Minnesota sacked him eight times on Sunday. Newton claimed later that his mobility wasn't hindered by an ankle injury he sustained earlier in the game, but that's not the key point here. He's being hit way too often and it's taking a toll on the offense's overall efficiency.

It's also apparent that Carolina has to tighten up its special teams play. The Panthers had a chance to beat Denver in Week 1, but kicker Graham Gano missed a last-second, 50-yard field goal to win the game. On Sunday, Sherels scored on one of the easiest punt returns you'll ever see. As soon as he caught the ball, he squirmed through a hole, darted to his left and raced upfield without ever being touched by one Panther.

Then there's the issue of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. He is Carolina's most dangerous weapon in the passing game so it's inexcusable that he saw only one pass thrown in his direction against Minnesota (he finished with no receptions).

"Whatever they were doing was effective," Newton said of the Vikings' defense. "We have to have answers for it, so that can't happen again. We have to get our playmakers involved in the game plan and that starts with me as the signal caller. For him to not have any touches is really baffling."

Some of these fixes will be easy (such as throwing the ball more to Benjamin). Others won't be so simple (like stabilizing the offensive line). The Panthers also need to understand that their loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50 revealed a painful truth about their mesmerizing run last season. They were unquestionably an entertaining juggernaut, but they also successfully masked some glaring flaws most of that year.

The Panthers didn't care if outsiders thought they had ordinary receivers after Benjamin was lost for the 2015 season with a torn ACL in training camp. It also didn't matter to them that the offensive line wasn't as reliable as it needed to be. They were going to ride with the players they put on the field. They were going to play tough defense, minimize mistakes and let Newton work his magic as much as necessary.

It made for a great narrative last year. That's now a story that better explains the Vikings' success this fall. They've been galvanized in the wake of the freakish knee injury sustained by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and they've also lost left tackle Matt Kalil and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. Even with all those setbacks, the Vikings continually talk about grinding every day, focusing on improvement and not fretting about what's happened in the past.

That's a mindset that should sound eerily familiar to Carolina because, as Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short said, "We have to pick up where we left off last year -- having that hunger and mentality to kill anything in front of us."

That's a terrific goal, and it's a critical step for the Panthers to take in such an early part of the season. But the real challenge for Carolina isn't just duplicating what worked last year -- it's also figuring out how to handle life when everybody wants to take you out.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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