Panthers offense searching for rhythm in preseason

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – If the goal of preseason games is to get quality work in, finalize your roster and avoid significant injuries, then the Panthers must be thrilled with their preseason’s first half. 

If the goal is to look good on the field during that process, then the positive mojo shouldn’t be as prevalent. Sure, the Panthers are only two meaningless preseason games and eight Cam Newton-led drives into a 1-1 start — so is it too early to sound the alarm on an offense that doesn’t look improved?

Yes, according to head Ron Rivera.

“I like what [the offense] is doing and like the way it’s going, so I’m pretty excited about them,” Rivera said.

Through the first two games of the preseason, the Panthers’ starting unit has looked more like the offense from the first half of last season. The wins and losses won’t go on the final record, but there’s plenty to glean from the starters taking on opponent’s starters … and the Panthers haven’t found much offensive success in those situations.

Newton’s eight drives so far have resulted in 13 points — the lone touchdown coming on an 18-yard drive after Josh Norman picked off a pass against the Bears, returning it into their red zone.

In what should be a stout NFC South, the Panthers need Newton to make a Year Three jump. The offense can not be the middle-of-the-pack unit they were a year ago. But that has not been the case so far.

Newton’s only completed 47.8 percent of his passes with a lowly 61.5 passer rating. The opener against the Bears saw him go just 3-for-6 for 16 yards, one touchdown and a pick-six in three series. Game Two against the Eagles wasn’t much better with an 8-for-17 outing for 112 yards in five series. 

The running game’s struggled as well. DeAngelo Williams has taken 17 carries only 49 yards so far, and the Panthers’ 2.9 yards per carry average is tied for third worst in the preseason so far. There have been bright spots, like a 13-play, 72-yard drive against the Eagles, but the drive stalled at the Philadelphia 9-yard line. 

Rivera mentioned Sunday that he’s really liked what he’s seen from the offense at times on tape, but it didn’t take him long to find an answer for where he wanted to see improvement.

“I want to see us put the ball in the end zone. We did a nice job in terms of driving it down into the red zone and getting ourselves in position, but we have to put seven on the board, not three,” Rivera said. “When you look at the tape and evaluate things, there were some things we did miss as individuals, some things that we could have corrected and made adjustments as coaches. So I think we’re doing the things that we need to do and we’ve put ourselves in position and now we just have to go out and do it.”

It’s definitely better to miss those plays now than in September, and they do have time with the regular season opener another three weeks out. 

“I think every offense in the league needs some work and we’re no different,” wide receiver David Gettis said. “We’re going to take these next couple of games and next couple of weeks of practice to perfect our offense, perfect our reads, and make sure we’re where we need to be and make plays.”

The biggest bright spot offensively for the Panthers thus far has to be Gettis. The 6-foot-3 receiver had a promising rookie campaign in 2010 with 508 yards receiving, but he’s had a rough go of it since, tearing his ACL in 2011 and spending the bulk of 2012 dealing with a hamstring injury. He’s back this preseason, though, and has looked great so far, leading the team in receiving each of the first two games with 82 yards and 60 yards, respectively. 

“I’m just using these first couple of games to knock the rust off,” Gettis said. “It’s been two years for me since being on the game field so just getting more comfortable going out there with the different reads defenses are giving and just making plays and helping my team.”

Gettis looks set to challenge Domenik Hixon for the third receiver slot but likely won’t get as many touches in the final two preseason games with Hixon returning to practice after being sidelined with a hamstring strain. Hixon, an offseason addition from the New York Giants, said he felt great Sunday and was excited to finally see the field in a Panther uniform. 

“I want to improve every year. I’m never complacent,” Hixon said. “I was told once by John Lynch that once you get complacent, that’s when you get replaced. So I Just try to go out there and every time I get an opportunity, play well.”

Hixon’s return gives Newton and the Panthers offense another playmaker when they head up to Baltimore for a date with the defending champs Thursday night. The Ravens lost a ton on defense from their Super Bowl team a year ago, but should serve as another good preseason measuring stick for a team yearning to show that they’ve got the great offense they claim. Besides a win, the goals for Thursday night and the remainder of the preseason are simple. 

“We want to be explosive and we definitely want to finish,” Hixon said.