Four Downs: Panthers offense sputters in loss to Seahawks

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Here are four observations from the Panthers’ season-opening 12-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks:
1. The defense lived up to the positive preseason praise
The hype was warranted.
This Panthers’ front seven is legit.
Behind a physical and aggressive effort up front, the Panthers held Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch to a mere 43 yards on 17 carries without having to overload the box to do so.
From the start, the NFL’s best pocket escape artist Russell Wilson had to duck, side step, and anything else he possibly could do to get away from a harassing Panthers’ pass rush. They only sacked him twice, but one of the sacks was a huge Charles Johnson sack in the red zone that he forced a fumble and kept the Seahawks off the board before the half. There were also two forced two holding penalties and an intentional grounding penalty.
It was the type of effort the Panthers are hoping they’ll be able to count on all season. Had you told Ron Rivera before the game they’d give up 12 points, he sure would have loved his chances.
“I thought the defense gave an inspirational performance honestly,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “They were outstanding and played their hearts out. Offensively, we have to score more than seven points, that’s what it all comes down to.”
The defense’s lone major breakdown was a play in the fourth quarter where new starting corner Josh Thomas bit and got burned deep for a 43-yard pass to Jermaine Kearse. The troubling part was Thomas had been burned on the previous play on a similar route but the receiver dropped it that time letting him off the hook. Kearse didn’t on the following play and the Seahawks took the lead.
“He bit hard and he was to stay disciplined and stay on top of the ball,” Rivera said. “He is an aggressive football player. He is going to attack and try and put his hands on you and if he misses that’s the unfortunate part about it. At that point he has to be smart and has to make sure that he can keep that guy in front of him.”
On the day, Wilson was 25-of-33 for 320 yards but outside of the one deep ball to Kearse, they largely kept the Seahawks’ offense in front of them and kept Wilson in check. He was magical in escaping the pocket and extending plays at times, especially on the final drive to ice it and keep the Panthers offense from getting the ball back. Wilson’s Houdini-like escapes won’t be seen very often, though, and the kind of pressure they brought Sunday will go a long way towards establishing this defense as the dominant, top-five unit they believe they are and will be.
2. Missed offensive opportunities continue to keep Panthers from finishing drives
No games come down to one play but it’ll be hard to look back at the Panthers’ 16-12 loss without thinking of DeAngelo Williams’ drive-killing fumble.
With the Panthers trailing 12-7 driving late in the 4th, Williams made a beautiful inside run that he bounced outside for 16 yards before Richard Sherman grabbed him and Earl Thomas popped the ball out from behind to end what could have been a game-winning drive. It was the type of loose carry that’s the difference between wins and losses and it came at the worst time.
“It ultimately came down to that fumble, let’s just get that out of the way, it was my fault,” Williams said. “In that situation, I’ve watched countless film on them and I know that’s what they do, they strip and go for the ball. But I’m a fighter, I’m going to fight for every yard that I can get and help my team win and put them in the best situation. Unfortunately, today they got the ball and it cost my team and the fans a hard fought win and I want to apologize.”
Williams’ acceptance of the burden is admirable but there were other costly mistakes that are death knells in close games. Josh Thomas failed to get out of the way of a punt while engaged blocking and suddenly the Seahawks had the ball in Panthers territory. There were mistakes early, too, like Greg Olsen dropping two passes in the first quarter — one where he was wide open in the right flanks and could have ran for at least another 10 yards and got into the opposing red zone on third down. Instead they came up empty.
There were mistakes resulting from simply a lack of discipline at times — two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on Armond Smith and one on Frank Alexander that changed field position and momentum.
3. Troubling close losses continue
Sunday’s 4th quarter had to have to felt like a horror movie on repeat postgame.
In 2012, the Panthers had seven losses by a touchdown or less. They got another Sunday. 
Head coach Ron Rivera acknowledged the similarities to some of the losses from a season ago, but thinks the trend isn’t indicative of the type of football team they are. 
“We had the opportunity to beat a team that people are crowning right now,” Rivera said. “It should be a wakeup call for us that we can play with anybody and we are most certainly capable and we are going to be winning some football games.”
There was definitely merit in the Panthers’ effort. That was the mood in the locker room after, too, among the players. There was clear frustration but optimism in the way they played and competed. Steve Smith, in particular, said they’ll get a chance for redemption.
“I stand on this: I think we’re going to see them again deep in January,” Smith said. “If we continue to play like we’re playing, eliminate some of the penalties, eliminate some of the mistakes. For us to have played that team’s that considered by all accounts the best team in the NFL, according to Skip Bayless ‘the best AFC team around’. I think if that’s who the best team is, it came down to the last 2:36 and it was a well fought game. Our season’s not over. We’re not a team where all the reports are that we have to start fast or the season’s over and if that means the season’s over, I’m not sure what kind of football y’all are used to around here, because that’s not a quitting team.”

4. Newton needs a wide receiver to emerge besides Steve Smith

Heading into the season opener, the Panthers’ offensive concern was the men up front. Now, it might be the guys on the edge.
Steve Smith was as engaged as always with 6 catches for 51 yards and a touchdown, but outside of Smith, there was little production coming from the wide receiver room.
Smith and tight end Greg Olsen, who had 56 yards receiving, accounted for 18 of Newton’s 23 passes. Ted Ginn was the only receiver to even see a look from Newton besides Smith with one target on a pass he caught for 10 yards.
“I’m not in that realm right now, that’s up to the coaches,” Newton said. “Just go out there with the given play, make my reads and take the jerseys off. I throw it to whoever’s open, and whatever the read is on that particular play, that’s who I throw it to.”
Rivera praised Newton’s decision-making after and said Seattle’s game plan dictated much of the inability to take any shots deep. Still, 253 yards of total offense isn’t going to get it done in the NFL very often, and Newton’s got to throw for more than 125 yards for the Panthers to win.
On the positive side, the offensive attack did look more a bit more balanced than it did a season ago with DeAngelo Williams gaining some tough yardage between the tackles on his way to 86 yards on 17 carries.