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Strickly Panthers: Winning ways


Head coach Ron Rivera likes a lot of the things he's seen through the first half of his first season, but the Panthers' record isn't one of them.

That's why Rivera spent the bye week working on ways to avoid a repeat in the second half.

"To be 2-6 is not acceptable by any means," Rivera said. "Honestly, I will be disappointed if we don't win more than four. I just think we have that kind of ability."

The Panthers showed that kind of ability in the first half, remaining a threat to win every game before the often-bitter ending. If they're to avoid a similar fate in the second half of the season, beginning with Sunday's visit by the Tennessee Titans, here are five things that need to change.

ROAD WORK: After the Panthers host the Titans, their next three games – and five of their final seven games – will be on the road.

The Panthers last won on the road in Week 16 of the 2009 season at the New York Giants. Since then, they've dropped 11 consecutive road games.

Carolina has been quite competitive away from home this season, pushing Arizona and Chicago to the brink and leading Atlanta heading into the fourth quarter.

Obviously, though, the Panthers must break through with an actual road victory sooner rather than later if their vision for the second half of the season is to be realized.

THIRD DOWN AND OUT: There aren't many things more frustrating for a defense than forcing the opposition into a third-down-and-long situation, only to let them off the hook.

There also aren't many areas of the game that have more to do with which team wins and which team loses.

The Panthers have failed to get off the field on third down 46.1 percent of the time, the fourth-worst rate in the NFL.

Half of the remaining schedule is against NFC South opponents, all of which feature quarterbacks adept at converting third downs. It's a tall task for a Panthers defense hit hard by injuries, but one that the unit intends on tackling.


CUT TO THE CHASE: There's one positive way the defense could get off the field even before third down.

Turnovers often are game-changers, and the Panthers haven't forced nearly enough of them. Carolina has nine takeaways through eight games; only four NFL teams have fewer.

Even with all the injuries, the defense has players capable of taking the ball away. A little more often, they need Charles Johnson's sacks to also produce fumbles or Chris Gamble's pass break-ups to also create interceptions.

!SPEAKING OF TURNOVERS: With the ball in his hand on every offensive snap, it's inevitable that quarterback Cam Newton is going to turn the ball over.

Still, there's a strong correlation between Newton's turnovers and the Panthers' ability to win games.

Newton has turned the ball over at least once in each of Carolina's six losses. In the two wins, he didn't turn the ball over.

Newton's aggressive approach is one of the main reasons the Panthers have been so competitive, so he can't simply go into a cocoon and play passively in hopes of avoiding turnovers. The rookie has, however, expressed concern over his turnovers and has vowed to be better going forward.

FLAG FOOTBALL: The Panthers currently rank fourth in the NFL with 65 penalties and 560 penalty yards.

Some of the flags have been crippling, like a late holding call against the Vikings and a pair of pass interference calls near the end zone against the Falcons.

Some penalties are inevitable given the aggressive approach the Panthers are taking on both sides of the ball, but the avoidable ones much be avoided more consistently if Carolina hopes to end the season strong.

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