CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The explosive offense the Carolina Panthers were hoping for with a healthy Cam Newton and dynamic Christian McCaffrey finally showed up in the second half of Sunday's 30-27 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, but the transition to a 3-4 defense needs some work.
With veteran outside linebacker Bruce Irvin out with a hamstring injury the Panthers played a lot more 4-3 fronts than one might have expected. They collected only one sack a year after finishing 27th in the league in sacks, prompting the defensive change.
They also gave up 166 yards rushing, also a weakness a year ago.
The good news Carolina won't face many more prolific offenses than the Rams. The bad news is they're 0-1 at home.
Biggest hole in the game plan: Not getting wide receiver Curtis Samuel involved in the first half. The MVP of training camp had only one catch for 2 yards in the first half as the Panthers went with a conservative game plan. They never took advantage of Samuel's speed with a deep throw which would have kept the Rams honest defensively. It made the Panthers predictable and allowed Los Angeles to stack the front.
1,000/1,000: Former 49ers great Roger Craig, the first running back in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season, predicted during the offseason that McCaffrey would become the third back to reach his milestone. McCaffrey is off to a good start with 10 catches for 81 yards and 19 rushes for 128 yards. He also had two touchdowns to give him six multi-touchdown games since the start of last season, tying Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara for the most.
QB breakdown: Coach Ron Rivera said there would be no limitations on the offense because of Newton's health, but the 2015 NFL MVP didn't throw a deep pass and wasn't a part of the running game in the read-option. Newton finished with minus-2 rushing yards, the worst of his career. He also missed a few wide open passes in critical situations, a second-and-8 attempt to tight end Greg Olsen from the Rams' 34 in the third quarter stands out the most. He also had a bad backwards pass to wide receiver DJ Moore in the first half that the Rams recovered at the Carolina 10, leading to an LA touchdown. While his completion percentage was solid (25-of-38, 65.7 %), Newton did nothing spectacular and the Panthers need him to be that.
Pivotal play: The Panthers had cut the lead to 16-10 midway through the third quarter and had recovered an apparent fumble after a catch on second-and-7. The official ruled it an incomplete pass. Carolina challenged whether it was a catch. The officials went to replay and ruled it was a catch, but said there wasn't enough evidence to rule whether the knee was down before the fumble, so they called it incomplete. Carolina was offsides on the do-over and the Rams went on to score a touchdown to make it 23-10.