CHARLOTTE – The stats show it. The scoreboard showed it. And head coach Ron Rivera said it showed on film.
“Probably the biggest thing was how well we played but then the critical mistakes we made that cost us as opportunity to win the football game – that’s the truth of the matter,” Rivera said the day after a tough-to-take loss to the Seahawks. “Winning football games comes down to four, five, six plays, and that’s exactly what got us.”
The Panthers put up some impressive numbers Sunday against Seattle, but the only number that mattered was the final tally: Seattle 30, Carolina 27. At the most basic level, the Panthers’ hopes heading into every game rest on running the ball and protecting the quarterback on offense while stopping the run on defense to make opposing offenses one-dimensional.
Carolina held the league’s leading rush offense to 75 yards – Seattle’s lowest output since Week 2 - and the Panthers racked up 220 rushing yards and didn’t allow quarterback Cam Newton to be sacked. But they lost the turnover battle 1-0, didn’t convert consistently in the red zone and made some game-changing miscues against Seattle’s passing game.
“We had red zone opportunities where we missed chances to score touchdowns. We missed an opportunity (on defense) on third down and an opportunity on fourth down to get off the field. Those critical mistakes are what beat you,” Rivera said. “Is there a better call? Maybe. Does it come down to execution? Sometimes.
“We have to take a look and see what we’re doing and see if we need to change some things up. We’ll look at what we’re doing. If it’s working, we want to continue to improve on it. If it’s not working, get rid of it and find something else that does work.”
There’s blame to go around after a third consecutive loss, but finding solutions fast is really what matters with the Panthers now sitting at 6-5 and facing a tough road in their pursuit of a fifth trip to the playoffs in six years.
The coaching part of the equation
“We can’t allow those critical mistakes as coaches, and we can’t have them as players,” Rivera said. “Maybe we need to look and re-think some of the things that we have them do. Maybe it’s on us.”
Rivera said the Panthers will “stay the course” in terms of the players they’ll lean on, and they really have no choice in that regard this late in the season. The talent is there, so the staff has to figure out how to best put them in position to make every play possible – and not make outcome-altering mistakes.
“We have to make sure we’re giving them every opportunity to succeed, then we have to go out and make sure we execute,” Rivera said. “We watch the tape, we look at what happened, and then off of that we make decisions. We’ve got to figure out why we had success and why we didn’t have success, and then what can we do to improve on it.”
When asked if there would be changes on the coaching side, Rivera reiterated that he was talking about changing alignments or play calls as opposed to any changes to the staff doing the coaching.
“We’ll continue to coach them up,” Rivera said. “We’ll try to put them in the best positions and give them that chance to go out and play.
“It’s difficult. This is a result of losing. If you win, it’s a whole different conversation that I’m having right now. But that’s just the way it is, and this is the conversation because we did have those critical mistakes at the wrong time.”
The playing part of the equation
“Everybody that played well, you could say there were two or three plays that they wished they had played better, I promise you that,” Rivera said.
Again on the whole, the Panthers played well against the Seahawks, but a handful of plays by young players and veterans alike have Carolina in this position. Rivera broke down two crushing miscues in pass defense late – one by a youngster, one by a veteran.
“If Corn turns into the man, he may have a chance to make a play,” Rivera said of cornerback Corn Elder’s role in a fourth-quarter, fourth-down completion to David Moore for 35 yards and the game-tying touchdown for Seattle. “He was there with him. It’s a feel thing. Remember that he’s a second-year player that spent last year on injured reserve. He’s got very little game experience, but he’s got a good skill set, and he showed it in the preseason. He shows us every time in practice that he can compete, but unfortunately on this play he got beat.”
Elder was forced into action when Donte Jackson exited on the game’s first play with a quad injury. Elder played the first defensive snap of his career in Week 2 at Atlanta when two injuries shook up the secondary, and he had totaled three snaps since.
While Elder didn’t turn his head quickly enough, a veteran in Captain Munnerlyn did so too quickly according to Rivera. On a 43-yard strike to Tyler Lockett on third-and-5 in the final seconds that set up the game-winning field goal, Munnerlyn though he was in position to make a play but the ball floated over his head.
“The biggest mistake Captain made was he took his eyes off the guy,” Rivera said. “Stay with the guy, read him, and then make a play on the ball. Unfortunately he looked for where the ball was and then lost his man.”
Veteran or rookie, it’s impossible to play a perfect game. Another example on the veteran side: Newton was spectacular Sunday, but he threw his first red zone interception all season. Those things happen, so it’s the inexperienced side of the equation where Rivera’s focus will lie moving forward.
“We’ve got a group of young guys that we’re coaching up at every position. They’re going through a development now, and that’s the thing we have to look at,” Rivera said. “Putting those guys on the field is the only way they’re going to grow and become players.
“The confidence is (fragile), but the truth is that you’ve just got to build it back up. The guys have to understand that they’re capable. You’ve got to make sure they learn from what happened, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”