CHARLOTTE – If you've watched the Panthers offense closely this season, you've probably noticed a valuable quality develop.
They don't let negative plays ruin drives.
Runs stopped in the backfield, penalties, sacks – those plays can be drive-killers, and in previous seasons, Carolina struggled to move past them.
But this year, the Panthers are confident, and to a certain extent, relaxed when adversity strikes during a possession.
Their red zone success is a product of such resilience. Carolina currently ranks fifth in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage, finding the end zone 65.3 percent of the time. Last year, the Panthers ranked 26th in that category, scoring touchdowns just 48.1 percent of the time.
"Number one, we've had less negative plays," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "When you lose yardage in the red zone, it's hard. Now that being said, the last few weeks, we've lost yards and had the ability to overcome it with good execution and not trying to force the ball."
Consider some examples:
In the latest victory at New Orleans, the Panthers faced third-and-goal from the 3-yard line in the third quarter. A touchdown pass to running back Jonathan Stewart was nullified due to a holding call on right tackle Mike Remmers. Next play, quarterback Cam Newton stood tall in the pocket and found wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. for a 13-yard touchdown.
On the very next possession, Carolina had first-and-goal from the 8-yard line and a Newton rush was stuffed for a 5-yard loss. Next play, Newton calmly delivered a strike to wide receiver Devin Funchess for another 13-yard touchdown.
It should be noted how brilliant Newton has been inside the 20. He's posted 19 touchdown passes and zero interceptions for a passer rating of 111.5.
"Cam is operating better overall down there, and we are running the ball decently," Shula said. "I think it's confidence in himself and his teammates. It doesn't matter what is going to happen, we are going to get it done."
And Carolina's offensive resilience extends beyond the red zone.
Consider a few more examples:
Last week in the third quarter at Dallas, consecutive plays were stopped in the backfield, bringing up third-and-17 from the Carolina 39. Unfazed by the Cowboys' blitz, Newton found wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery for a 24-yard gain. The Panthers finished that drive with a touchdown, extending the lead to 30-6.
Early in Week 11 against Washington, Newton was sacked for a 12-yard loss on first down. On second-and-22 from Carolina's own 10-yard line, Newton connected with Cotchery for a 19-yard gain. Ginn moved the chains on the next play, and the Panthers wound up completing a 13-play touchdown drive.
In Week 9 against Green Bay, a 12-yard loss on first down led to third-and-16 from Carolina's own 26. Newton avoided the rush, extended the play, and found Cotchery wide open for a 59-yard gain.
"We're going to need those types of great efforts moving forward and that's going to be hidden in statistics, but yet are always ingredients for good teams and great success," Newton said recently of overcoming negative plays.
Added Cotchery, one of the go-to targets when Carolina needs a bounce-back play: "Coach Shula preaches handling the 'what-ifs.' The different situations that come up in the game, we practice those and we feel comfortable whatever the down and distance is. When we go out there, it's up to us to execute."
Week 13: Saints vs. Panthers