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The Rivera Report: Tackling fundamental flaws

CHARLOTTE – The scoreboard showed that in Thursday's showdown at the Steelers, the Panthers didn't do nearly enough.

But the day after Carolina's 52-21 loss in Pittsburgh, head coach Ron Rivera said his team at times tried to do too much.

"More so than anything else, it was guys trying to do things that they don't need to try to do," Rivera said Friday after reviewing film of the lopsided loss. "We had a couple of situations early on where guys tried to make more out of something, and unfortunately it cost us.

"At the end of the day we've just got to stick to our base fundamentals."

The Steelers controlled the game by controlling the line of scrimmage regardless of which team had the ball, and Rivera bookmarked both of his lines as groups that will get plenty of attention from the coaches leading up to Carolina's next game in Detroit in nine days.

But according to Rivera, the challenge for the offensive line against a Steelers team that entered play ranking fourth in the NFL in sacks was amped up early by a fundamental error by a Panthers secondary that had shined all season. After the offense had clicked in scoring its first opening-drive touchdown of the season, the Steelers quickly struck back with a 75-yard passing touchdown on miscommunication between cornerback James Bradberry and nickel Captain Munnerlyn.

"We gave up a big play, and as simple as it was, if we stuck to our base fundamentals, they don't throw that one up over the top," Rivera said, adding that the scoring play and the Steelers' defensive touchdown seconds later set the stage for Pittsburgh's defense to really turn the screws on the offensive line. "With the lead that you have, you can do certain things, you can do certain elements that are a little risky, and it's tough. (They) can sit there and rush more than you can protect. It was the unfortunate circumstances of the game we were in."

Carolina's offensive line has been called "patchwork" with both projected starting tackles having played one game combined, but the unit had done yeoman's work before Thursday. But the Steelers on a short week with an early lead buoying them hit Carolina's offensive line with some new looks, and the Panthers didn't respond as hoped. Having allowed quarterback Cam Newton to be sacked just 12 times through eight games, the line yielded five sacks Thursday.

"Sometimes when you see things for the first time, when they do things a little bit differently and put a little bit of a twist to it, it can be difficult," Rivera said. "But we've just got to be able to handle those things – stick to our roles, stick to our base fundamentals.

"When they bring one more than you can block, it's difficult. That's the hard part, and that's the thing that these guys have to work on. It's being able to recognize certain things. When they do something that's a little different or a little new, you're going to have those types of things happen. It's difficult to sit there and say, 'Oh well, you should pick it up every time.' It's why defenses are designed."

While Rivera was quick to credit Pittsburgh's pass rush and harp on the importance of fundamentals in response, the potential solution might not be as simple as better fundamentals for a Panthers' pass rush that didn't affect Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his perfect passer rating.

Rivera pointed to personnel, and to trying to find the right combination of personnel, in an attempt to turn what he has called a "hot and cold" pass rush into a more consistent contributor.

"Defensively we've got to continue to roll these guys through until we find something that really clicks on the pass rush side," Rivera said. "The inconsistency of the pass rush has to do with the young guys that we are using. Efe (Obaba) is coming in and giving us everything that he has."

Defensive ends Mario Addison and Julius Peppers are essentially playing the same percentage of snaps they did last year (about 65 percent for Addison, 50 percent for Peppers), but Peppers in his 17th season is a year older. Longtime defensive end standout Charles Johnson, who attended the Steelers game, didn't put up notable numbers his final year in the league in 2017, but he fit along the line and helped propel it forward while playing 40 percent of the defensive snaps.

To this point, Johnson's snaps have been divided between Obada and veteran Wes Horton. Obada is taking about two-thirds of them in his first live action as a pro, while Horton is getting increased action that's covering the other third of Johnson's snaps. Developing ends Bryan Cox Jr. and Marquis Haynes haven't had much of a role.

"It's difficult when you don't have that continuity from the start, so these guys are developing that rapport," Rivera said. "That's part of it, but we just have to be better.

"We're evaluating, we're watching tape and we're trying to see what exactly we need to do going forward to be successful."

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