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Passing game tries to go deep, can't connect

Bryce Young

NEW ORLEANS — Bryce Young sat alone in his locker, staring straight ahead, before a staffer came by and put a quiet hand on his shoulder. 

DJ Chark Jr. stood getting dressed, shaking his head, saying, "It's just sad."

And Adam Thielen, the elder of the offense, half-laughed with dismay when someone asked if this latest effort from the Panthers' passing game was "rock bottom."

"We've been at rock bottom for a while," Thielen replied. "But it's one of those things where I don't think anybody's panicking, you know, it's just, that's just how things are playing out. You've got to kind of trust in yourself, you've got to trust in the plan, the mission, and just, you've got to take it one play at a time more than ever.

"Everybody says that, it's a creative thing to say, but more than ever, you just have to just truly focus on it yourself, how you can get better. And then focus on every single day and then just let it play out."

How it's playing out right now for the Panthers passing game is poorly, probably worse than it has been all season. 

Young was 13-of-36 passing, a season-low 36.1 percent completions. He threw for 137 yards, which actually wasn't a season-low considering the 123 he threw for against Dallas. His passer rating of 48.0 was a season-low, but the third time this season it was under 50. 

The Panthers have struggled to throw the ball all year. This was the day when it looked like even the simplest passes were a labor.

"Again, lack of execution, especially for myself," Young said quietly, even quieter than his normal reserved post-game demeanor. "I missed a lot of things. I thought we played well on the perimeter, played well up front. But I've got to continue to get better."

The most obvious sign of his frustration was near the end of the first half, when he missed a deep shot to an open Jonathan Mingo, among a number of clean shots he had, which left him visibly frustrated. 

"I mean, we're all sick of it," Young said. "We're all tired of it, but that doesn't entitle us to anything," he said. "It's on us, ultimately, why we're there. And we have to do a better job to prevent that. So no matter how tired we are, you know, we've got to be better."

That was a common theme throughout a quiet and quickly dispersing locker room. There have been games this year when Young didn't put up numbers because they were keeping it safe for him, limiting the throws to near the line of scrimmage. That wasn't Sunday. Interim coach Chris Tabor said there were plays to be made downfield, and they were determined to take their shots. They just didn't connect, and even when Young was on target, there were enough drops to be devastating on a day when the defense and a running game that put 204 yards on the board gave them a chance.

The thing that's not working is the passing game. That seems apparent, and firing a head coach midway through his first season should suggest that. But the way it has unraveled baffles them.

"Honestly, I couldn't tell you, man," Chark replied honestly, when asked to explain what was wrong. "It's lots of words, bro. We go out there try hard, just most of the year it ain't been coming together. Sometimes you sit back and when you're a competitor, you take it personally and you know, you just wonder if it's me. But you know, you snap out of it, and it's bigger than one person.

"But man, I don't really have an answer."

Neither did Jonathan Mingo, who is growing in apparent trust with Young (he was targeted a team-high nine times) but had just two catches for 22 yards after two productive games.

"I don't know, it's not really my type of question now," Mingo replied. "I control what I can control. So, for me, I just handle my view because I'm not a critic; I'm not nobody to judge. I just go out there and just try to get open to make a play. So, if I make a mistake, I own up to it."

DJ Chark Jr.

The only part that has consistently worked this year is when Young throws to 33-year-old Thielen. He was among the league's most productive receivers most of the year but had just four catches for 27 yards the previous two weeks combined. Sunday, he was back on the board with five catches for 74 yards, including a 32-yarder. But the deep game is not his deal, so when that's the priority, and he has all but 63 of the team's passing yards, it's not going well.

"I don't think there's one thing. It's a lot," Thielen said of the root of the problem. "I'm out there just like the rest of these guys out there doing everything I can in a play to try to win, get open, and make plays when they come. But things haven't clicked and haven't gone our way."

That leaves the burden on Young.

Tabor shut down a question about whether it was helpful to the rookie to stay in the game, saying that when you run for 204 yards, the offensive line isn't the problem. Young was sacked four more times, getting him to 48 in 12 games, but he was often working from reasonably acceptable pockets, or as acceptable as they get on a team that's played six different left guards and seven different right guards in 13 games this year.

"He's handling it great," Thielen said. "He just goes out there and does his job to the best of his ability, and obviously it's tough. He's a competitor. And so it's not easy, but I think he's just pushing through. He's fighting.

"I think it's a lot of adversity right now, but it will make him stronger in the long run, just like all of us."

Asked if this is making Young stronger, Thielen turned philosophical.

"Yeah, I think life sometimes breaks you down to build you back up," he said. "So I'm excited to get back to work with him. And obviously, we've got a lot of confidence in what he can do.

"Now, we've got to go and make plays for him to take some pressure off him."

View all the action from the Panthers' game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 14.

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