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Panthers forced to become aggressive on fourth downs

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – No one can say the Carolina Panthers are second-rate on fourth down.

OK, maybe they are not the NFL's best in that regard. But when one play is the difference between an extended drive or a change of possession, often they gain the necessary yards. Sometimes more.

Sunday at Nissan Stadium, for example, the Panthers' opening drive of the second half reached a critical point when it was fourth-and-2 from the Tennessee Titans' 5-yard-line.

Down by 14, coach Frank Reich passed on the opportunity for an all-but-guaranteed three points. Running back Chuba Hubbard took a handoff up the middle and not only reached the line to gain, but he also crossed the goal line for Carolina's only touchdown of the day. It capped an 11-play, 67-yard march that included two third-down conversions, cut the deficit in half, and made the score 17-10, which is where it remained to the finish.

"It gives a lot of juice, a lot of energy," quarterback Bryce Young said. "We have to do a better job of building on that. I think, for us, it shows what we can do. We just have to make sure that we're doing it consistently. And when we do get that, that we can build on it.

"So that's something that we definitely want to improve on moving forward."

It was the Panthers' second fourth-down conversion of the contest and the 15th of the season, which tied a franchise record set in 2020.

Through 11 games, Carolina is 15-for-26 (57.7 percent) on fourth down. At this rate, the offense will move the chains 23 times on fourth down, which would match the NFL record set by Cleveland a year ago. The current success rate is on pace for their best ever.

Part of the record-setting approach can be attributed to the current state of the NFL. The expanded use of analytics has created a dramatic increase in fourth-down attempts by every team in recent years.

The Panthers, for example, have gone for it on fourth down more than 20 times in eight different seasons, including each of the last five. They set a franchise high with 24 tries in 2019, broke it with 27 attempts in 2020, and topped that with 34 last season.

They came into Sunday's contest tied with Philadelphia and Detroit – two first-place teams – for second in the NFL with 13 fourth-down conversions. Only the Minnesota Vikings, winners of six of their last games, had more (14).

It is also true, however, that a team with just one win in 11 games has been forced to go for it more than some others. Carolina has attempted at least one fourth-down conversion in every contest thus far in 2023, and five times, including each of the last four, they have gone for it at least three times.

As a result, they started the day as one of four franchises with at least 22 fourth-down tries.

The others were Detroit (27), the New York Giants (23) and the Arizona Cardinals (22). The Giants and Cardinals are last-place teams.

"Teams that are more aggressive in that situation tend to have a little more success just because you have more opportunity to convert," wide receiver Adam Thielen said. "When you convert and get first downs in this league, the chance of points skyrockets, I think.

"… Usually, that stuff gives you an opportunity to have success, but the way we're scoring right
now, it's a grind. … We have to find a way to find some rhythm earlier and get that momentum faster."

A successful attempt in the second quarter against Tennessee, when Young completed a 13-yard pass to tight end Stephen Sullivan on fourth-and-3 led to Carolina's only other points, a 50-yard Eddy Piñeiro field goal.

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Hubbard's touchdown run was the Panthers' eighth straight successful fourth-down try, dating back to a failed fourth-and-18 against Indianapolis on Nov. 5, when Young scrambled but was
tackled six yards short.
That streak ended with the Panthers' final offensive play against the Titans, a fourth-and-6 on which Young connected with DJ Chark for no gain. Even though the ball was at their own 24, coach Frank Reich thought that one had a chance to be another one based on Tennessee's
decision to blitz.

"When you get that play right versus (an all-out blitz), it's a touchdown," Reich said. "… We just need to execute that better."

The way they have so many other fourth downs this season.

View all the action from the Panthers' game against the Tennessee Titans in Week 12.

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