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Red zone struggles spell difference

Posted Oct 29, 2012

CHARLOTTE – Head coach Ron Rivera's film review of Sunday's game at the Chicago Bears confirmed what he already knew: The Panthers played well enough to win.

Rivera just wishes the film looked a little different once the Panthers reached the red zone.

"To play the way we did – to get 416 yards of total offense and hold them to 210 – you give yourself an opportunity to win," Rivera said. "The only thing we didn't do well was the red zone, not as well as we wanted to."

The Panthers drove inside Chicago's 20-yard line four times Sunday but had to settle a field goal on three of those occasions. The Bears reached the end zone twice on three drives inside Carolina's 20.

In the end, it added up to a 23-22 triumph for the Bears.

"We're pleased with the way we played, but obviously we're not pleased with the outcome," Rivera said. "We had a couple of opportunities that we missed, obviously. Those are the things we've got to continue to work on."

After the Bears took a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter, Carolina marched into the red zone on its next three possessions. The first and last ended with a field goal, while the one in between resulted in a touchdown but could have produced nothing if wide receiver Louis Murphy hadn't pounced on quarterback Cam Newton's fumble into the end zone.

The first drive hit a bump the Panthers couldn't overcome when right guard Jeff Byers, making his first NFL start, was whistled for holding on first-and-10 from Chicago's 18.

"I don't necessarily agree with the holding penalty he had. That was too bad," Rivera said. "But I thought Byers came in and was scrappy. He fought."

The last drive stalled when, on second-and-7 from the 10, the Panthers went to a power running play but lost three yards. The Panthers went away from their zone read option Sunday to try to jumpstart their ground game, with mixed results.

"I think it helped, but at times I think we could have used it (the zone read)," Rivera. "Hindsight is 20-20, though. We can all see clear."

The final red-zone opportunity came early in the second half. On second-and-goal at the 4-yard line, wide receiver Steve Smith got open over the middle on a crossing pattern, but Newton missed him in part because Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher forced Smith to alter his route.

On third down, Smith again was targeted, but the pass didn't come close to connecting, forcing a field goal at the end of a 90-yard drive.

"We had some long drives but just didn't finish them with touchdowns," Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. "Their red-zone defense is outstanding, among the best in the league (third best with 36.8-percent touchdown rate).

"There's a fine line down there between getting the job and not getting the job done. The windows are tighter in the passing game, and there are more guys stacked up, so things are magnified. We were just off a few inches here and there and just didn't get it done."

Carolina actually is converting red-zone possessions into touchdowns at close to the same rate as a season ago. The Panthers ranked seventh in the NFL with a 57.9-percent touchdown rate in 2011; this year they're 13th with a 55-percent success rate.

Big picture, the bigger concern may be the number of red-zone opportunities. The Panthers ranked eighth in the NFL with 57 red-zone drives last year but are tied for 25th so far this season with 20.

After averaging nearly four marches a game into the red zone last year, they're just below three a game this year, but they exceeded both averages Sunday against an above-average defense.

"We did the types of things that we need to do to give ourselves the opportunity to win," Rivera said. "Our guys gave us a chance. We've just got to execute."