CHARLOTTE — Though the Panthers beat the Chargers on the road in Week 3, one glaring offensive statistic illustrates how the unit can get better: Carolina finished 1-of-6 in red-zone efficiency.
Arguably, that number should have been worse. If not for L.A. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery illegally lining up over the long snapper on a field goal attempt for a 5-yard penalty, Carolina wouldn't have scored its lone touchdown.
"The inability to run the football and missed opportunities would be the two things in the red zone that I saw," head coach Matt Rhule admitted Monday.
The Panthers ran 14 plays inside the Chargers' 20-yard line: seven runs and seven passes. To Rhule's point, starting running back Mike Davis took three red-zone carries for a total of zero yards. Backup running back Reggie Bonnafon had a carry for 3 yards, wide receiver Curtis Samuel took a pair of carries for 3 yards, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's 6-yard, third-down scramble was short of the sticks.
Bridgewater finished 6-of-7 for 29 yards with a touchdown in red-zone passing. But without the 13-yard touchdown on a screen pass to Davis, Bridgewater was 5-of-6 for 16 yards — just 2.7 yards per attempt.
"Instead of having 18 points at the half, that could've easily been 30 points if we just execute in the red zone," Bridgewater said. "We're going to put a huge emphasis on that."
Carolina's issues inside the 20 are directly related to the offense's problems with third downs. The Panthers finished 3-of-12 overall in the category Sunday. They needed 6 yards or fewer on seven of those plays, but only covered two successfully and they did not have a third-down conversion in the red zone.
"Third down is a four-point play," Bridgewater said. "If you don't convert on third down, you're settling for field goals. If you get first downs in the red zone, they eventually lead to touchdowns."
Improving those numbers won't be easy to accomplish against the Cardinals in Week 4. The Panthers are one of nine teams with at least 13 red-zone possessions through the first three games. But of those teams, Carolina has the fewest touchdowns (five). Aside from Detroit (six), each of the other clubs have reached the end zone at least eight times.
Arizona is one of the best red zone defenses so far in 2020, allowing just four touchdowns on 13 opponent possessions inside the 20.
The challenges will likely extend to third down. The Cardinals' defense leads the league, allowing an opponent conversion rate of just 29 percent. The Panthers had made 54 percent of their third-down opportunities in the first two weeks, but that figure is now tied for No. 13 at 44 percent.
"L.A. is a good team. They have a good defense. But you watch that game, and we didn't execute well at all (on third down)," Bridgewater said. "All camp, the first two weeks, you can say we moved the ball well and things like that, we executed well in different areas — whether it was third down one week, not turning the ball over one week."
Overall, the Panthers rank No. 24 in points scored, No. 16 in total yards, and No. 9 in passing yards. Those numbers suggest Carolina is doing some things right when it comes to offense. The unit did do enough to win in Week 3, but players know it might not be enough in the future.
"We still have a lot of work to do," Bridgewater said. "The mindset and the message will be to never be complacent."
View the best photos from behind the scenes of Carolina's win over the Chargers in Week 3.