Defense shows improvement, but again comes up short and without a sack

Brian Burns pressures Tom Brady

CHARLOTTE — Sunday's loss to Tampa Bay was effectively a tale of two halves for the Panthers' defense.

After 30 minutes, the Buccaneers held a 21-0 lead. They'd outgained the Panthers 230-109, with 14 first downs to Carolina's six. Quarterback Tom Brady had completed 17 of his 23 passes for 198 yards and a touchdown. Tampa Bay was 5-of-8 on third down, but an unnecessary roughness penalty moved the chains on one of the failed conversions.

And while 14 of those points had come off Panthers turnovers, it still was not looking good for the visitors.

But then a funny thing happened in the second half — the defense held its ground and gave the offense a chance to come back.

"We came in for halftime and just kind of focused on how were they beating us," cornerback Donte Jackson said. "They weren't driving the field, they weren't throwing over our head, we were just losing third down.

"We came out and played a little bit better."

In addition to head coach Matt Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow, Jackson said linebackers Shaq Thompson, Tahir Whitehead and injured defensive tackle Kawann Short spoke up at halftime.

"It was everybody just kind of coming together to clean it up because it wasn't really nothing they were doing, it was all on us," Jackson said.

Jackson got the momentum rolling by intercepting Brady on Tampa Bay's first offensive play of the second half. The quarterback was looking for his former Patriots teammate tight end Rob Gronkowski over the middle, and the throw was too high.

"I got a chance to play high with a little vision in a deep zone and got '12' to make a mistake, and I got to go get it," Jackson said.

Brady was just 6-of-12 passing in the second half for 19 yards, though he did throw two passes that could have been caught for touchdowns. The Bucs were also 0-of-3 on third down in the second half, though they extended a drive with a pair of defensive third-down penalties.

Still, before running back Leonard Fournette's 46-yard touchdown put the game out of reach, the Panthers had surrendered just 76 total second-half yards.

The defensive improvement was part of why Rhule elected to attempt an onside kick down seven points with 1:57 left.

"We thought we had a chance at it, and if not, we still thought we were going to stop them," head coach Matt Rhule said. "Instead of being one shot, we thought we would give ourselves two shots, and we would try to make a play."

But that didn't work out. Fournette broke through the line for a 46-yard touchdown that proved to be the dagger.

"Football's one of those things where you have to watch the film, especially on the big runs, you have to figure out where it hit. It could've been my fault — you have no idea until you watch the film," defensive tackle Zach Kerr said.

While the defense played better, the unit still has a lot of room for improvement, particularly when it comes to pass rush. Through two games, the Panthers have recorded just one quarterback hit. Kerr picked up the stat on Jackson's interception in the third quarter, hitting Brady as he threw. But the signal-caller had all day to throw in the first half, and though Brady was pressured more in the second, the Panthers finished without a sack for the second time in as many games in 2020.

"We need to have more pressure than that," Rhule said. "I thought the second half, in the third quarter, Brian Burns came alive and was really playing the role of an outside linebacker, drop and made some plays out in space. Had one key quarterback pressure. But, we had to go to a little bit more of a blitz mindset today to get pressure on Brady."

There are positives and negatives from each game, but the Panthers are 0-2 on the season and have lost 10 consecutive games dating back to last year. That's the most significant stat that must change going forward.

"It's very tough, and I'm sick of it," Burns said of the losing streak. "We need to fix this, and it starts tomorrow."

View photos of game action in Week 2 at Tampa Bay.

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