ST. LOUIS – In the aftermath of Sunday's 20-10 loss to the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome, a reporter asked Panthers head coach John Fox if his defense was on the field too much in the first half.
"Are you talking about the first half of the season or today?" Fox said before pausing. "That would be a yes."
The story of Carolina's season – before last Sunday's breath of fresh air – had been a defense doing everything it could to help the team hang around, only to be left waiting for an offensive push that never materialized.
The offense finally made its mark in a dramatic victory over the San Francisco 49ers last week, but it was back to the same old story against the Rams.
"After last week we were headed in the right direction, but we just didn't get it done today," Panthers quarterback Matt Moore said. "It's frustrating, and it's not fun.
"Everybody's got to get better. It's as easy as that."
Nothing came easy for the offense Sunday, one week after Moore recorded the first 300-yard game of his NFL career in his return to the starting lineup.
While St. Louis' offense tortured the Panthers with long drives filled with short passes – the Rams possessed the ball for 21 of 30 minutes in the first half -- Carolina's offense tortured itself.
The Panthers turned the ball over four times and reached the red zone just once. They gained just 25 yards on the ground.
"We ended up with three interceptions and one fumble. You're not going to win games, especially on the road, when you turn it over that many times," Fox said. "It was frustrating.
"We saw glimpses even today; we just didn't have it consistently enough. Right now that's our issue: not being consistent with it."
Indeed, even with the struggles, the game was there for the taking for the longest time. Carolina had just one first down and 16 yards of total offense entering its final first-half drive, yet after that drive produced 43 yards and a 44-yard field goal from John Kasay, the Panthers trailed just 10-3 at the half.
They maintained the momentum in the third quarter, controlling time of possession like the Rams had in the first half, but it didn't produce points.
The first two drives of the second half generated five first downs – two more than Carolina had all of the first half – but the first drive stalled just short of field-goal range and the second one started too deep in Carolina territory.
The third drive of the half began near midfield thanks to Captain Munnerlyn's 31-yard punt return but ended there as well early in the fourth quarter, when Steve Smith (nine catches, 85 yards) lost a fumble.
This time, the Rams all but put it away with some clutch conversions. Brandon Gibson got behind the defense for a 33-yard catch on second-and-15, then fullback Daniel Fells scored on a 23-yard catch on third-and-18 for a 17-3 cushion.
"We were building some momentum, but we didn't put points on the board when we needed to," said Panthers wide receiver David Gettis, who had no catches a week after scoring two touchdowns. "They played a great game, obviously. They slowed us down, but I think we slowed ourselves down as well."
The lengthy conversions on the Rams' decisive touchdown drive were a departure from their approach to that point. Earlier, Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford picked the Panthers apart in painstaking fashion, rarely gaining double-digit yards but always seeming to gain just enough yards.
On their first touchdown drive, for example, the Rams needed more than six minutes to methodically march 55 yards on 11 plays. Bradford was 6-for-7 on the drive but for just 42 yards, completing a 9-yarder on third-and-5, an 8-yarder on third-and-7 and a 2-yarder for a touchdown to Danny Amendola on third-and-goal.
"It makes you mad because you're right there, but in that split second, you don't make the right reaction and they make the catch," Panthers cornerback Richard Marshall said. "We would get the tackle, but it was still a first down. You start thinking, what can we do?"
For the day, Bradford threw for a modest 191 yards but completed 25 of 32 passes. Moore's numbers – buoyed by a late drive that ended with rookie receiver Brandon LaFell's first touchdown – finished with similar numbers, with one major difference: Bradford had two more touchdowns than he had interceptions; Moore had two more interceptions than touchdowns.
"We get a lot of that type of offense against us – close to the vest, not a whole lot of risk involved," Fox said. "They did an outstanding job of doing that, and they protected the football."