TAMPA, Fla. – Head coach Ron Rivera took a more hands-on approach with the defense during Sunday's 24-17 loss to Tampa Bay.
"I was helping with the defensive play-calling," said Rivera, who earned a reputation as one of the top defensive minds in football as a coordinator with the Bears and then the Chargers before becoming the head coach in Carolina. "Just a different set of eyes, another perspective."
First-year defensive coordinator Eric Washington has been calling plays for the unit from the sideline throughout the season. Some players on the defense said they didn't notice anything different with the play-calling procedure. Others opted not to address that directly. Rivera didn't elaborate further.
Center Ryan Kalil offered these thoughts: "(Rivera) has always been involved with the defense. That's his background and he's had incredible success as a defensive coordinator. Guys like him can't help it, they are always involved. I don't see him being more involved this season than any other season."
The Panthers have had their struggles lately on the defensive side of the ball, and those struggled continued at the start against the Buccaneers, who produced a 75-yard touchdown drive to open the game.
Quarterback Cam Newton threw his first of four interceptions on the third play of Carolina's ensuing possession, but the Panthers defense was able to force a field goal and limit the damage to a 10-0 hole.
"I didn't think they really did too much. The first drive was the only drive they took the ball and went down and scored a touchdown," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "I thought the defense played solid."
"We did some good things," linebacker Luke Kuechly added, "but obviously we didn't do enough."
It's true, the Panthers had their moments defensively.
They created their first takeaway in four games in the second quarter, when safety Eric Reid forced a fumble at the goal line that linebacker Luke Kuechly recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
They also recorded four sacks (second-highest total on the year) after deciding to play defensive end Wes Horton occasionally as a three-technique with defensive tackle Vernon Butler inactive as a healthy scratch.
But quarterback Jameis Winston also managed extend plays and scramble when under pressure, rushing five times for 48 yards.
"We were trying to create a little something different as far as our pass rush," Rivera said. "I will say this though, I thought Jameis hurt us at times with his mobility, tucking the ball and running a couple times. That kept us off balance."
Carolina's four giveaways created shorter fields for the Bucs. So too did penalties – none bigger than the pass interference call on rookie cornerback Donte Jackson midway through the third quarter, with Carolina trailing 17-10.
On first-and-20 from the Tampa Bay 47, Winston launched a deep ball to wide receiver Bobo Wilson in the end zone. Jackson was in good coverage position and appeared to make a play on the ball, but the flag was thrown.
"We gave up a big penalty over the top. I have an opinion on it but I can't share it," Rivera said.
The 52-yard penalty set up the Bucs with first-and-goal at the 1. Running back Peyton Barber then scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown on the next play.
And whatever changes took place with the play-calling didn't do much to help Carolina get off the field on third down. Through three quarters, the Buccaneers were 6-of-9 in third-down efficiency. Included in that was a conversion on third-and-18 and two conversions on third-and-11, one for a touchdown.
"Third-and-long is a defense's dream. You can pin your ears back, you can play coverage, you can do anything you want," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We just didn't do well in those situations today."
Much like the week prior against Seattle, the Panthers outgained their opposition. But they lost the turnover battle and were the lesser team on third down.
Thus, they're stuck with another loss.
"We have not been able to make a play when it matters," Rivera said.