CHARLOTTE – The Panthers are struggling to protect rookie quarterback Bryce Young. They're struggling to make plays in critical moments. They're struggling to run the football. They're struggling to communicate. They're struggling to mitigate mistakes.
That's how you end up 0-4.
Sunday's result was about all of that and more, as Carolina kept the ball (winning time of possession 38:29 to 21:31) but couldn't move it (putting up just 232 yards of offense) in a 21-13 loss to Minnesota.
The Panthers held a lead throughout most of the game thanks to a stronger defensive day, relinquishing it in the back half of the third quarter. With 6:27 remaining in the third, Young fell victim to a Harrison Smith strip sack returned by D.J. Wonnum for the Vikings' go-ahead touchdown.
Despite a close scoring opportunity at the end of the game, Carolina trailed to the final.
"Obviously, turning the ball over is something we talk about a lot," a visibly disappointed Young said after the game. "That was a huge, huge, huge swing of the game. And that's solely, single-handedly on me, stuff we talked about. … That's no one else but me, and there's stuff on top of that that you want to unpack. We have to turn around."
Young was sacked five times for a loss of 55 yards. Three of those sacks were delivered by Smith, who finished the day with 14 combined tackles.
The Vikings would score again to extend their lead, while the Panthers neared the end zone down by 8 points late. They failed to turn it into anything before a first-and-goal at the 9-yard line was blown up after a sack on a pushed-back fourth-and-goal from the 18.
Smith, who spearheaded Minnesota's go-ahead defensive score, also dealt the final blow on the Panthers' last drive. He came up with the sack against Young on fourth-and-goal from the Vikings' 18-yard line with just over a minute to go.
"We have to execute in those critical moments – red zone, third downs, end of the game; you've got to execute," wide receiver Adam Thielen said after posting 76 yards on seven catches against his former team. "And that's what this league comes down to every week. Every week, it's a one-score game. That's just how it is. So you've got to find a way to be resilient and make those plays when it matters."
Head coach Frank Reich said they had prepared for Minnesota's frequent blitzes and that none of the Vikings' defensive concepts came off as total surprises.
The Panthers didn't execute in protection, and they didn't get to Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins like the Vikings were getting to Young.
"Harrison's a crafty player," Reich said. "They really didn't do anything that we didn't practice against or work against. But at the same time, they executed well. We knew they were going to show us a lot of blitz looks. … So we knew coming in, they might get us once or twice. And they did."
Reich blamed himself for some early offensive miscues, such as when he had to burn a first-half timeout because he'd dialed up a play for Thielen, and Thielen had temporarily left the field with an injury.
"We've just got to operate a little bit faster," Reich said. "There's one that I called, a play for Thielen, then I realized he was out. And I didn't know he was out. I didn't know he was out fast enough. It was a play that could only go to Thielen, so I had to change the ball. And we ended up – that was the one we had to call a timeout on. That was what happened."
From a play selection standpoint, Carolina made some early attempts to run, which was an adjustment from what had occurred at Seattle last week when they only mustered 44 yards on 14 attempts throughout the entire game.
But against the Vikings, the Panthers finished with just 83 rush yards on 31 attempts, averaging just 2.7 yards per carry despite the added rushing calls.
Running back Miles Sanders put up just 19 yards on 13 runs, averaging 1.5 yards per attempt, with his longest rush of the day going for just 6 yards.
"It's really important, not just getting a run game; we have a rookie quarterback, and it's hard for him to get going and get in rhythm with everything going out of control," Sanders said. "It's kind of hectic for him, for any rookie quarterback. … It's just one of those things, just got to get back in the room, watch film, and get better."
It is more challenging for Young – and the whole offense – to get into a rhythm when drives are stalling, sacks are taken, communication lapses, or protection failures.
Sanders knows it; they all do. And that's why they're diving swiftly into correcting everything from the delay of game penalties to miscommunication across the unit.
There's a lot to fix. And soon.
"The urgency and getting out of the huddle stuff, and delay of games, is what's really killing us – you know, trying to get into a real rhythm," Sanders said. "We can't really get into a rhythm. Honestly, we're not playing good football right now.
"There's no pointing fingers at anybody but everybody. It's not just one person. This is everybody that has to do with this. It's the whole offense. And it's something we've got to change quick, or it's going to be the tale of this year."
View all the action from the Panthers' game against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4.