CHARLOTTE – Earlier this week, Matt Rhule admitted the Panthers’ lack of third-quarter production has been keeping him up at night. So Carolina's head coach probably won't be coming to work on Monday morning on a lot of sleep.
After heading into the halftime locker room on Sunday tied at 17 with Tampa Bay, Carolina came out of it sputtering yet again. On three drives, the Panthers punted once, threw an interception and ran a failed fake punt attempt, while totaling just 34 yards and getting shut out in the third quarter for the sixth time in 10 games. They've gone scoreless a total of four times in their 30 other quarters this season.
Meanwhile, the defense watched Ronald Jones break off a 98-yard touchdown run, the longest in Buccaneers history and the longest ever allowed by Carolina.
Down 29-17 going into the fourth quarter, the Panthers limped home, netting just 1 yard and allowing another 17 points in the final 15 minutes.
"Obviously, unbelievably disappointed in the way we played in the second half," Rhule said. "Completely unacceptable from every member of that locker room — player, coach. Completely unacceptable."
The Bucs outscored the Panthers, 29-6, in the second half and dominated total yardage to the tune of 322-35. Those 35 yards tied for the second-fewest in the second half in franchise history behind a 15-yard performance against the Bills on Sept. 10, 1995, in Carolina's second-ever game.
While, statistically, the fourth quarter was even worse than the third, it was the third that set the tone yet again. And it was quite the departure from what was yet another efficient and productive first half.
Through 10 games, the Panthers are stuck on 24 points scored and are averaging just 47.4 yards in the third quarter. Of their 20 third-quarter drives, they've now had nine punts, three touchdowns, two fumbles, two missed field goals, two turnovers on downs, a made field goal and an interception.
"We better find a way to do something better in the third quarter. It's been consistent and one of the few things we haven't improved," Rhule said. "To be 17-17 with that team, I was proud of our effort in the first half. We need to figure something out in the third quarter."
Added center Matt Paradis:
"I share the frustration. We've got to do better. We can't not perform in the third quarter or the second half. We've got to be able to move the ball and score points. We've got to be better. That was not alright."
Part of the problem is third downs — on both sides of the ball. But let's start with the offense.
The Panthers were 0-for-2 on third down in the third quarter and now have a 34.4 third-down conversion rate in the quarter this season. But third down wasn't just a third-quarter issue Sunday. Carolina converted only one of its nine attempts and went 0-for-4 in the second half. That helped Tampa Bay run 22 more plays and hold a time of possession advantage of nearly 11 minutes in the final two quarters.
Defensively, the Panthers allowed the Bucs to go 6-for-7 on third down in the first half, including a third-and-11 that led to a game-tying touchdown late in the second quarter. When Brady hit tight end Cameron Brate for a 19-yard gain on third-and-19 in the third quarter, the Bucs improved to 8-for-10 on third down. They finished 10-of-16 against a Panthers' defense that came in ranked 31st on third down this season.
"We put emphasis on it every week that that's the down," cornerback Rasul Douglas said. "I think we do play well enough on first and second down to get off the field on third down. And then, we just don't. We don't find a way."
At least the Jones back-breaker didn't come on third down. But it was in the third quarter following a nice hustle play by defensive back Myles Hartsfield, who helped the Panthers down a Joseph Charlton punt down at the Tampa Bay 2-yard line. When Jones took the first-down handoff, he popped through the middle of the Panthers' defense before sprinting through a diving effort by safety Jeremy Chinn for the 98-yard score.
"We slanted off the right, so we blitzed off the right side. One of our defensive players was supposed to slant with it and didn't run the slant. Ball hit in that gap. Couldn't get the ball down. Couldn't run him down," Rhule said.
"Obviously, that's was tremendously disappointing and very similar to the first game — same run play, their 'duo' run that they popped at the end of the game."
That run in the first matchup was a 46-yard touchdown run by Leonard Fournette that sealed a Bucs' win in Week 2. This rush by Jones eclipsed an 89-yarder by Giovanni Bernard in a 37-all tie at Cincinnati in 2014 for the longest ever allowed by the Panthers.
"We knew what play they were running. Shaq (Thompson) only screamed it to us 30 times while we were in the huddle," Douglas said. "I think everyone, all the coaches, everybody on our team knew what play they were running. We just have to stay in our gap and get him down and live to see another down."
Thanks to their second-half explosion, the Bucs finished with 544 yards, the third-most allowed in Panthers' history and fifth-most in the NFL this year. Meanwhile, the Panthers' offense has now scored 145 points in the first half and 88 in the second.
There's a good team in there somewhere. We've seen it through nine and a half games. Sunday's second half was the first time all season the Panthers looked like the team many pundits figured they'd be heading into the year. If they can snap out of their funk in the third quarter and on third downs, the next six weeks could be a springboard into 2021. If not, it'll be tough to snap out of this five-game losing streak.
"He basically told everybody to look in the mirror," said Douglas, summarizing a passionate postgame speech from Thompson. "Like the coaches have been preaching all week — details, leverage, assignment and winning your one-on-ones and none of us did any of that. The whole team, we all did bad. He basically cursed everybody out and said we didn't fight hard enough, we didn't want it more.
"We know we are a good enough team to win and I think that's what kills us the most, when we know we can win, and we just don't put it on film."
See game action photos from Carolina's Week 10 game against Tampa Bay, presented by USAA, the official Salute to Service Partner of the Carolina Panthers.