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Offensive line failed to establish familiar identity

D'Onta Foreman

CHARLOTTE — The normal instinct after a loss is to say you have to look back at the film to see what went wrong.

And there were a few versions of that in the Panthers' locker room after Sunday's 24-16 loss to the Steelers, but there were also many more unvarnished reflections on how it all went down.

"I'm pissed," running back D'Onta Foreman said. "I know we're better than that."

At least, they had been in recent weeks.

The Steelers left Bank of America Stadium with a road win because they took all the things the Panthers were good at and turned them against them.

Under interim coach Steve Wilks, the Panthers had developed a personality in the eight previous games. They had run for 146.9 yards per game over the last eight games, and allowed just 11 sacks.

Sunday, the Panthers ran for 21 yards, their fewest since they managed just 10 in the 2012 season opener against the Buccaneers. They also allowed four sacks of quarterback Sam Darnold, who was sacked just twice in his previous two starts.

That was hard to accept for a team that has built its image on the offensive line over the last two months.

"We can play more physical. We can get after people a little better," center Bradley Bozeman said. "We're going to take pride in this, shake back this week, bring it into practice and see where we end up at the end of the week."

The ability to run had kept the Panthers afloat after a 1-4 start to the season, followed by trading away All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey. The sudden inability to do what they had been doing sank them on Sunday.

It also created a chicken-egg problem, as too many unfortunate down-and-distance situations led them to a 4-of-11 conversion rate on third downs that wasn't nearly sufficient (especially after they converted three of their first four).

The average yards to gain on those 11 third downs was 8.5, meaning they spent the day (particularly the final three quarters) in third-and-long.

That left them feeling a certain way.

"Pissed off. But it's part of the game," Bozeman said of the difficulties running the ball and in pass protection. "They're both pretty hand in hand. I gave up one (sack) today I shouldn't have given up with bad technique. It pissed me off. But we've got to do better; we've got to protect longer. It doesn't matter what the situation is. You've got to throw the ball to win games too."

That led to some frank talk after the game. Wilks was quick to say he was at the top of the list when he talked to reporters.

"We didn't do a great job. And that starts with me," Wilks said. "In preparation, thought we were ready, we didn't go out and execute today in so many different fashions. . . . On the offensive side of the ball, we couldn't create any momentum. Didn't establish the running game. But we've all got to do a much better job in our protection and giving Sam the opportunity to be able to go through his progressions and get down the field. Third down was horrendous, to say the least, on both sides. . .

"So it's nothing we can do about this game. This is behind us."

Wilks also used his pull-no-strings approach when he talked to his team.

"He's going to tell us what happened. We didn't execute today; we didn't win the line of scrimmage," left tackle Ikem Ekwonu said. "We didn't do a lot of the things that we wanted to do, things we knew we'd have to do to win. That's a thing we respect. He's always going to call it how he sees it, not going to sugarcoat anything. It helps us to refocus and know what we've got to work on.

"It's not hard to hear. We're all feeling pretty bad coming off this loss; we don't want to get a 'you tried.' We're all competitors, we want to hear what we did wrong, how to fix it, and I think coach Wilks did a great job of that."

He's delivered this message before. When the Panthers were feeling better about themselves early in his tenure, a home win over the Buccaneers was followed by an overtime loss at Atlanta. Then came the Bengals game, which got off the rails early and never returned. But in a short week, they responded by beating the Falcons on Thursday night in the same style which had become their custom. At least until Sunday.

"You have no option but turn the page," said right guard Austin Corbett, ahead of Saturday's visit from the Lions. "Short week, you have to focus on your body, get that right, turn it over and get to as close to 100 percent as you can. There's no time to dwell on it.

"That is what it is. We put that out there. That's who we are right now. So we have to go out there and change what's on tape to re-establish who we are."

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