Panther offense searches for identity

Carolina’s balance hasn’t paid off in points or yardage

jperson@charlotteobserver.comOctober 14, 2012 

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Carolina Panthers' DeAngelo Williams (34) has the ball stripped from him by Seattle Seahawks' Brandon Browner (39) in the second half at Bank of America Stadium October 7, 2012. Seattle won 16-12. David T. Foster III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

DAVID T. FOSTER III — dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

  • Balancing act Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski says he tries to keep a healthy balance of run and pass. A look at the offensive statistics reveals the the Panthers are more balanced through five games than they were at this point last season (all statistics through five games):
    Category 2012 2011
    Rushes 128124
    Passes 140193
    Total plays 268313
    Total net yards 1,6852,141
    First downs 95112

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said a couple of weeks ago his team needed to establish an identity.

As the Panthers stumbled into the bye week with a 1-4 record, they were still searching for that identity on offense.

After setting franchise records last season in total yardage and first downs – a year after finishing with team lows in both categories under John Fox – the Panthers decided to build on their strength for 2012.

They extended the contract of veteran wideout Steve Smith, gave running back Jonathan Stewart a lucrative extension and brought in free-agent fullback Mike Tolbert to diversify the attack.

But an offense that was both exciting and productive last season has been neither in 2012. Through five games, the Panthers rank 22nd out of 32 teams in total offense – a big drop for a unit that that finished seventh last season.

Passing yards are down, rushing yards are down, and points are down.

The Panthers have been held below 13 points in three of their five games. They scored fewer than 13 points just once last season – a 30-3 loss to Tennessee.

And that identity?

“Our offensive identity is that we’re an attacking offense and we can run the ball or throw the ball in any situation, and do whatever it takes to win that game,” Chudzinski said. “In the games that we’ve played well we’ve been able to do those things. We’ve played balanced offense and been able to throw and get some good plays down the field. In the games we haven’t played well, we haven’t started well or got in a rhythm and things have tended to snowball on us and we haven’t been able to break out.”

Rivera said he wants the Panthers to “attack vertically,” as they did in 2011 when they led the league with 90 plays of 20 yards or more. With that commitment to a downfield passing attack, critics have questioned whether the Panthers were wise to invest $43.5 million in guaranteed money to retain running backs DeAngelo Williams and Stewart.

Rivera, Chudzinski and the Panthers’ offensive players say there’s a place for the backs in the offense when it’s clicking. That’s happened twice – in a 35-25 win over New Orleans and a 30-28 loss at Atlanta.

Second-year quarterback Cam Newton has taken most of the criticism for the Panthers’ uneven offensive play. Rivera said he thinks last year’s AP Offensive Rookie of the Year is pressing – forcing throws into coverage downfield when underneath receivers are open.

Rivera and Chudzinski said Newton is holding on to the ball too long at times, waiting for receivers – usually Smith – to come open downfield. That has led to 13 sacks, four more than at this point last season.

Young line

When the Panthers decided to cut ties with veteran guard Travelle Wharton and underachieving, oft-injured tackle Jeff Otah, it left them with two young starters on the offensive line – rookie guard Amini Silatolu, a second-round pick from Division II Midwestern State, and second-year tackle Byron Bell, an undrafted free agent who started 12 games in 2011.

“We have some young players in there in terms of Amini, who’s got a lot to learn. And Byron Bell, who’s still learning,” Rivera said. “But having said that, our veteran guys have to step up. Some of those guys have to take the bull by the horns and show the younger players how to do it. Because we have enough quality leadership on this team, we have enough veterans on this team, that they can lead.”

The Panthers lost one of those leaders last week when Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil was diagnosed with a season-ending foot injury. It was the first significant injury for the Panthers, who last season placed a team-record 18 players on injured reserve.

Geoff Hangartner, who will shift from right guard to center to replace Kalil, said it has been a frustrating season for an offense from which much was expected. “We’ve had some plays in some games that we played pretty well, and it felt like things were clicking,” Hangartner said. “Then we’ve had some games where it felt like nothing worked. The game against Seattle being one of them offensively that we never got in a rhythm, never got the ball moving, never looked like ourselves.’’

In a 16-12 loss to Seattle, which has the NFL’s No. 2-ranked defense, the Panthers failed to score an offensive touchdown and finished with 190 total yards, the lowest in two seasons under Rivera.

Have defenses adjusted?

Chudzinski said he planned to spend a big part of the bye week self-scouting his offense to see if there are certain plays, formations or tendencies that need tweaking. A popular theory – one even Rivera gave credence to – is that defensive coordinators have had a year to study Newton and the Panthers’ zone-read and vertical stretch attacks.

But Chudzinski said no one has reinvented the wheel against the Panthers. “It’s not anything that’s earth-shattering. I think there are things that are in the defensive playbook 101,” Chudzinski said. “Nothing that you look at that and say, ‘What is this, that you’ve never seen before.’ ’’

A running back has led the Panthers in rushing once in five games. But Carolina actually has been more balanced than they were through five games a year ago (see chart).

The problem has been that in three games, neither the running game nor passing attack was particularly effective.

Supporting Chud

Williams, who had a fumble and a dropped pass against the Seahawks, said he stands behind Chudzinski.

“We believe in Chud like we believe in ourselves. He can’t go out there and run the plays that he calls. There’s no magic plays,” Williams said. “But we can make them magical by bringing them to life by execution and making them work out on the field.”

Stewart, who has missed two games with injuries, believes the Panthers are close to breaking out based on “flashes of things that we’ve seen over the last couple games, last year, practice.”

Added Stewart: “We know that we’re inches away from breaking away.”

With the commitment the Panthers made to the offense, Williams said it has created a situation with “a lot of people calling for that one rock.”

But Williams said the playmakers at every position give him confidence the Panthers can turn things around.

“We try to make the best of our opportunities when we get the rock in our hand. We just haven’t made the plays that we need to make to have this offense go,” Williams said. “I think that we’re striving for that. And I know that we’re going to make that go, and we will be a better team.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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