CHARLOTTE – For the fourth time this season, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's unit held an opposing offense to less than 20 points.
For the fourth time, Carolina came away empty-handed.
"Most of the time when you do that, you give yourself a chance to win," McDermott said of Sunday's 23-22 loss to Chicago, a game in which a defensive touchdown keyed the Bears' comeback. "Two hundred ten yards, six sacks and three takeaways – in my history in the NFL, you win those games.
"It's gut-wrenching to see the performance those guys put on the field and not come away with the win."
Last season, the Panthers were 5-0 when limiting opponents to less than 20 points. With the offense soaring a year ago, a common school of thought coming into this year was that Carolina could be a playoff contender if its defense showed improvement.
The unit has, ranking 15th in yards allowed per game after ranking 28th last season. But the wins haven't come with the offense dipping from seventh to 20th.
"It's frustrating because defensively I feel like we've improved by leaps and bounds over last year, but we don't have much to show for it," McDermott said. "Is there more to do? Yes. You have to look at yourself and say, 'What else can we do?' Well, we have to win the game. Take it to another level and win the game."
The ball was in the defense's court after a 45-yard field goal with 2:27 remaining gave the Panthers a 22-20 lead. But the Bears responded by methodically moving the ball into field-goal range with a series of quick, short passes. Their approach surprised Carolina after quarterback Jay Cutler had tried to get the Bears in field-goal range at the end of the first half with deep drops and vertical passes.
"In terms of the last drive, sometimes those go your way, sometimes they don't," McDermott said. "Obviously, we need to tighten up the coverage there and win that situation next time."
OFFENSE MOVES CHAINS: The offense did everything but score touchdowns against the stout Bears defense. The Panthers totaled 416 yards and converted 10-of-19 third downs (52.6 percent), a season best for a team that entered the game ranked 27th in the NFL in third-down conversions (31.7 percent).
"Our third downs were the best they've been," offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. "We've put a lot of emphasis on it as something we've wanted to improve. Really it's just a matter of execution, and that goes to protection, to the routes and to the throws and guys making catches and plays.
"It always helps when you're in manageable situations on third down, but even on some of the long ones we were able to convert."
The run game didn't gain big chunks against the Bears but helped keep third downs manageable. The Panthers largely went away from the zone read in the running game to more of a traditional look.
"Ron (Rivera) discussed it with me earlier in the week," Chudzinski said. "We wanted to scale back a little bit to give less to Cam (Newton), to put less on his plate, and Chicago was a team where that made sense. Their defensive ends are real athletic, and that would have made it a little bit tougher for that. But we'll look at it on a week-to-week basis."
Chudzinski still sees advantages to the zone read look, an offense in which Newton excelled in college and also as a rookie.
"Instead of having to block the guy on the back side, you end up just reading him, and that helps with your numbers because you don't have to get somebody else in the box to block him," Chudzinski said. "Also sometimes your blocking angles are better. It also becomes an offense in itself with all the things you can do off of it."
PERFECTION**: With the "Windy City" living up to its nickname, Panthers kicker J.J. Jansen nailed all five of his field goal attempts.
He's one of six active kickers yet to miss a field goal this season, though he's still close to the bottom of the pack in attempts.
Medlock had tried just two field goals in the Panthers' first six games before getting busy Sunday to improve to 7-for-7 in his first NFL action since kicking in the opener of his rookie season in 2007.
Jacksonville kicker Josh Scobee leads the way at 14-for-14, Cleveland's Phil Dawson has been good on all 12 of his kicks, and Denver's Matt Prater has made all nine of his. Kai Forbath is 6-for-6 since taking over as Washington's kicker, and Buffalo's Rian Lindell is 5-for-5.
Scobee and Forbath, however, have failed on a PAT. Medlock is 15-for-15.