CHARLOTTE — When the Panthers ran their fourth-and-2 play out of the two-minute warning during Sunday's loss to the Bears, the play appeared to work.
Wide receiver DJ Moore got separation from cornerback Buster Skrine off the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had enough time to make a throw from a clean pocket.
But when the ball arrived, Moore had to extend his left arm, attempting to make a tough one-handed grab. While the third-year wideout initially had a grip on the ball, he couldn't hold on to complete the catch.
So after reviewing the film, what happened?
"I think just coming out of that break, Teddy's expecting him to be a little bit higher on the angle, DJ went a little flatter, and they just didn't hit," head coach Matt Rhule said. "Teddy's expecting one angle, he ran another angle, and we didn't hit it. So we came in as coaches today and said we have to do a better job of getting more reps and maybe cutting down on some of those things."
To take a big-picture view, not having an in-person offseason program paired with a limited training camp may have affected that play. If Carolina had gone through a standard spring and summer routine, Moore and Bridgewater might have been closer to the same page.
But Moore and Bridgewater's connection hasn't been all that strong through the first six games. Moore has reeled in 27 of his 48 targeted passes for a 56.3 percent catch rate. Robby Anderson, however, has caught 40 of his 51 targeted passes for a 78.4 percent rate. Curtis Samuel is at 82.6 percent and Mike Davis at 88.9 percent.
Rhule thought Sunday's game showed Bridgewater and Moore's improving chemistry. Moore caught five passes for 93 yards and drew a defensive pass interference penalty that set up Davis' 1-yard touchdown run. Still, Moore and Bridgewater missed on six of their 11 targets.
"I think DJ is doing a great job of just grasping all the information that we're throwing at him. All of this is still new to a lot of people, so for a lot of us, they're not making excuses or anything," Bridgewater said. "We want to keep finding ways to get these guys involved, all of our guys, and allow them to be in the best position to make plays to help us win."
Moore has still been plenty productive in 2020, catching 27 passes for 474 yards. He's second on the team in receiving yards and third in receptions. But as Bridgewater and Moore gain more experience playing together, their chemistry should improve, too.
That should help out in situations like the critical fourth-and-2 in the future.
"We just have to get the connection down and I just have to catch the ball at the end of day," Moore said. "That was a critical situation. I feel as though I could have made a play."
IMPROVEMENT IN RUN DEFENSE
A week after surrendering 166 yards rushing and 6.9 yards per carry, the Panthers vastly improved their run defense against the Bears.
Chicago finished with 63 yards on 25 carries, averaging 2.5 yards per attempt.
"I think anytime you hold someone in the NFL under 100 yards (rushing), it's a good day," Rhule said.
Linebacker Tahir Whitehead attributed the improvement to Carolina's defenders playing gap-sound football. Last week, Rhule said the Panthers needed to eliminate "silly stuff" like defenders spinning out of their assigned gap.
"When you have everyone on defense, all 11 guys doing their job, fitting the gaps that they're supposed to be in, using your hands, getting off blocks, and getting to the ball, you're going to play great defense," Whitehead said. "We just have to do it more consistently and do it at a high level each and every play."
The Panthers' defense has made significant strides in plenty of areas this season. Still, third down continues to be an issue. Chicago started 7-of-10 in the category, though Carolina tightened up toward the end of the game so that the Bears finished 7-of-14.
Overall, the Panthers have allowed a 50.7 percent third-down conversion rate, ranking No. 29 heading into Monday night's games.
"You need to be able to find a way to get off the field. You need to find a way to make the team punt the ball and not continue to extend their drives," Whitehead said. "I think that's something we'll continue to work at, and I think we will get better at because, at the end of the day, we have that type of group."
It won't get easier next week. The Saints are No. 4 on third down, converting 48.5 percent of their attempts this season.
INJURIES + NEXT MAN UP
As running back Christian McCaffrey continues to rehab his high ankle sprain, Rhule was unsure Monday if the All-Pro will be able to return in Week 7.
"I'm hopeful we get him back soon," Rhule said. "I'd love to have him."
McCaffrey has been out for four games since injuring the ankle against the Buccaneers in Week 2. The original diagnosis was that McCaffrey would be out four to six weeks.
Rhule did not have an update on safety Juston Burris, who suffered a ribs injury in Sunday's third quarter and did not return. Undrafted rookie Sam Franklin Jr. took Burris' place in the secondary, making a pair of tackles.
"I thought Sam played really well. He got in the game, had a big hit," Rhule said. "He's got corner's athleticism at safety, and he's a smart football guy."
The Panthers feel comfortable with their depth at safety between Franklin and fellow undrafted rookie Myles Hartsfield. Both have been heavy special teams contributors, with Hartsfield taking 57.3 percent and Franklin taking 49.0 percent of the unit's snaps.
"If at any point a guy goes down, those two guys, I know they're young, but they're here for a reason," Rhule said. "We're going to put them in there and play them if need be."
View the best photos from behind the scenes of Carolina's Week 6 game against Chicago.