CHARLOTTE – When the Panthers jumped out to an early 14-0 lead on Sunday, it appeared they'd cruise to a win over the 2-9 Redskins. Carolina quarterback Kyle Allen was especially on-point, hitting on all eight of his passes for 106 yards and a pair of scores.
It was all going so well.
Until it wasn't.
After gaining 130 yards on those first two drives, the Panthers netted just 70 yards on their next nine possessions. Eight of those ended with punts. The other was an Allen interception that set up Washington's first touchdown.
So what happened?
First, let's look at first down.
In those nine possessions between the Panthers' first two scores and their final touchdown late in the fourth quarter, they ran 15 plays on first down. Those looked like this:
- Christian McCaffrey 2-yard run
- McCaffrey 4-yard run
- Allen incomplete pass to DJ Moore
- Allen incomplete pass to McCaffrey
- Allen sacked for -4 yards
- Alex Armah 2-yard run
- McCaffrey 2-yard run
- Allen sacked for -8 yards
- McCaffrey 1-yard run
- Allen 16-yard completion to Curtis Samuel
- Allen fumbled snap for -2 yards
- McCaffrey 5-yard run
- McCaffrey 3-yard run
- Allen sacked for -7 yards
- Allen sacked for -5 yards
Add it all up, and that's 15 plays that netted 9 yards and included four sacks.
"If you shoot yourself in the foot on a first down, it's tough because defenses can kind of predict what you're going to do on the second play," Samuel said. "They're going to drop back, force you to throw the ball down the field, play the sticks on third down and third-and-long. It's just tough when you're in that situation."
But it sure made it easier for the Redskins, who came in with the league's 32nd-ranked third-down defense. After the Panthers converted their first two third-down tries into touchdowns, they went 0-for-8 on their next eight attempts. Their average down and distance on those plays was third-and-13.
"We had a stretch where we didn't come out on third down and do what we needed to do to give ourselves a chance. We kept putting ourselves in second and long against an aggressive play-caller, guys who are going to blitz a lot. You can't do that to yourself," head coach Ron Rivera said.
"When you play behind the sticks, it's tough."
Now, back to Allen's interception. That came on second down with the Panthers still ahead, 14-6, in the second quarter. Throwing from inside the Panthers' end zone, Allen attempted to hit Moore on a slant. But when he was thrown off his route by a body check from safety Landon Collins, cornerback Fabian Moreau had an easy pick.
"I saw the safety coming down to cover Christian in the flat. So, I alerted DJ on the slant and (Collins) ran into DJ, and I threw it, and it ended up in the corner's hands. It's tough," said Allen, before lamenting not throwing to McCaffrey.
"I mean if I give the ball to Christian there ... It's not good to turn the ball over inside your own 5. I basically gave them points there."
Again, Allen started the day 8-for-8. His numbers in the nine drives that followed: 7-for-20 for 55 yards and an interception.
But the offensive shutdown wasn't just on one guy.
The Panthers struggled to establish a ground game with McCaffrey, the league's leading rusher, who finished with 44 yards on 14 carries. There were multiple drops, including from an open Samuel midway through the third quarter and at least one from the usually sure-handed McCaffrey. Then there was the relentless pressure from the Redskins, who finished with a season-high seven sacks.
"I just felt like we just kept taking turns making mistakes. And it's unacceptable. Poor performance all the way through," Allen said. "For us to come out that way like we did the first few drives, and play that way the rest of the game, it's not good."