CHARLOTTE — Through most of this season, the Panthers have had success moving the ball between the 20s. Red-zone scoring has been an issue, but getting there through sustained drives has not.
When the Panthers defeated the Falcons in Week 5, they finished 6-of-12 on third down and had 24 first downs while winning time of possession 33:05 to 26:55.
But during Thursday's loss in the Atlanta rematch, Carolina had only 18 first downs, went 2-of-10 on third down, and 1-of-3 on fourth down. As such, the Panthers held possession for only 23:30 to the Falcons' 36:30.
Atlanta's defense had a lot to do with that, having switched from head coach Dan Quinn to interim coach Raheem Morris following the last game between the two teams.
"They played like a team that had their backs against the wall and had nothing to lose and didn't want to lose anymore," head coach Matt Rhule said Friday. "At the end of the day, we still had tremendous opportunities. We still had guys running wide open. We still had a lot of different chances to make plays.
"Really, the only difference between the second game and the first game is (in) the first game we made those plays, and in this game, for one reason or another, every different time we just didn't make the same amount of plays."
Carolina's two failed fourth-down conversions exemplified the difficulties.
In the second quarter, the Panthers kept the offense on the field on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 34. Working from a shotgun formation with running back Mike Davis to his right, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater kept the ball on a zone-read but couldn't make it to the sticks.
"I'm sure Teddy would be the first to tell you, he wishes he could go back and hand that ball off, but it was kind of an in-between read," Rhule said. "He pulled it, and the guy ran with him, so it's just one of those plays. Hindsight's always 20/20. If you go back, a handoff might rip for 10, 12 yards there."
In the third quarter, Davis was stuffed for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 42. Davis slipped on the wet ground, which caused him to get dropped behind the line of scrimmage. But the Falcons had good penetration and may have stopped the running back regardless.
"They just won the physical battle," Rhule said.
Both of those failed conversions led to Falcons' field goals on 10-play drives. That's partially a defensive issue, but it meant the Panthers had less time to score on future possessions.
"Those were two really big plays in the game," Rhule said. "You're not going to win if you can't extend drives. And those were two times where we lined up and ran what we thought were plays that would work and just weren't able to make them work."
On third down, the Panthers were bailed out with a defensive pass interference penalty en route to scoring a touchdown on their opening drive. But then Bridgewater was sacked to take them out of field-goal range at the end of the first quarter.
The Panthers' only successful third-down conversions on 10 attempts came on a 3-yard pass to wide receiver Curtis Samuel on third-and-2 in the second quarter and wide receiver DJ Moore's 42-yard catch down the right side on third-and-18 with 1:47 left in the contest.
"Those guys had a good game plan," Bridgwater said. "They knew some of the things that we wanted to do, and they had answers for it."
"(Little) just gave up a couple pressures and (we) put Trent in and went with Trent. That being said, he's not the only guy that gave up pressures," Rhule said. "Sometimes, when you're a left tackle, it just stands out a little bit more."
It also didn't help that the Panthers lost Bridgewater for six plays after sustaining an illegal hit from Falcons defensive end Charles Harris. Like the players who spoke after the game, Rhule appreciated that Bridgewater returned in the fourth quarter.
"I was prepared to play the rest of the game without him," Rhule said. "But credit to him for wanting to go back out there and finish the game."
But when the Panthers begin preparing to visit the Chiefs next week, sustaining drives will have to be a focus. Carolina needs to score touchdowns inside the 20 because field goals won't beat Kansas City's explosive offense. But to address the red-zone offense, the Panthers have to get inside the 20 first. That means sustaining drives and converting critical third and fourth downs.
View behind-the-scenes photos from Thursday Night Football in Bank of America Stadium.