CHARLOTTE - Since the Panthers travelled to Chicago in Week 7 and failed to score a touchdown, the offense has steadily progressed in the seven games since, specifically in red zone production.
"I think the heightened awareness when we struggled against Chicago, we went back to the drawing board and asked, 'What are we not doing well?'" tight end Ed Dickson said. "We were very critical of ourselves.
"We took it upon ourselves and coaching to get better every single week."
All season long, head coach Ron Rivera has stressed the importance of scoring touchdowns inside the 20 rather than settling for field goals.
"It's about getting into the red zone first and foremost, and then not kicking field goals but scoring touchdowns," Rivera said before Carolina scored a touchdown on 75 percent of its trips into the red zone against Green Bay.
Over the last seven games, the Panthers rank third in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage, having scored 17 touchdowns on 24 red zone possessions – a 71 percent rate. That stands in stark contrast to Carolina's first seven games, when the Panthers ranked 29th in the league in red zone production, settling for 12 field goals opposed to nine touchdowns.
The newfound red zone success has led to wins in six of Carolina's last seven games, and much of it stems from the Panthers' improved rushing attack. Over the last seven games, the Panthers have been the best rushing teams in the NFL, averaging 174 yards per game.
"I think the thing we've improved more than anything else is our ability to run the football," Rivera said. "We've been good on first and second downs, and you put yourself in second and short then third and short, you give yourself a chance to convert even more. It's very important in the red zone that you continue that pace. It's first-and-10 and you get five or six yards on that, you give yourself a better chance to score."
On first and second down since Week 8, Carolina has totaled the most rushing yards in the league (1,037) and the fourth-most yards per attempt (4.94). This trend has carried into the red zone, where quarterback Cam Newton's window to work has widened. While he's ran for three touchdowns in the past seven games, he's also thrown six touchdowns – two of which helped stave off the Packers last Sunday.
"I think we've done a nice job being at our best in that part of the field, and we're going to need to continue to do that if you want to beat good teams," tight end Greg Olsen said.
View photos from the week of practice leading up to the Panthers' game against the Buccaneers.