After reviewing the tape from his team’s opening-week loss to Seattle, Panthers coach Ron Rivera came to the same consensus as fans who watched from home:
The passing attack was too conservative.
Under first-year offensive coordinator Mike Shula, quarterback Cam Newton threw only three passes that went more than 10 yards in the air, according to STATS INC. The result: a career-low, 125-yard passing day for Newton and a lack of momentum-swinging, offensive plays in the Seahawks’ 12-7 victory Sunday.
Newton completed 16 of 23 passes, but the majority were underneath throws. His longest completion was a 27-yarder to tight end Greg Olsen, who uncharacteristically had two drops, including one on a long pass down the seam.
Rivera said there were things the coaching staff needs to address “in terms of getting the ball vertical.”
“We understand it. We looked through it, we talked about it. And those will be the things that we look to do. We’ve got to create more of those opportunities,” Rivera added. “Some of it too is the quarterback having to pull the ball down and scramble a couple of times. So there are a few things that enter into that. But we are aware of what needs to be done.”
In two years under former coordinator Rob Chudzinski, the Panthers led the league in plays of 20 yards or longer. The Panthers had 165 of those so-called chunk plays, including a league-high 41 passing plays.
“This system is a system that does that a lot. But just because you have a system that does that doesn’t mean you have to force the ball down the field,” Shula said Monday. “I really thought Cam did a nice job on a lot of decisions he made. There’s some things we looked at that, yeah, we had some opportunities. We think we’ll get better in that regard. But you don’t want to just all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to throw the ball down the field.’”
Shula said the Seahawks played a lot of deep zone coverages, particularly on third downs, forcing Newton to settle for underneath receivers. While Newton’s 69.6 completion percentage was the sixth-highest of his career, only Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert (121) threw for fewer yards Sunday than Newton — and Gabbert played with a thumb injury after being named the starter an hour before kickoff.
“His completion percentage was up, but unfortunately we’re used to having a few more explosive (plays),” Shula said. “Now whether that’s throwing the ball deep down the field or in the seams or on outs, or underneath and breaking tackles, that’s what we’ve got to do a better job doing.”
With the defense playing well, Shula stuck mostly with an effective running game that relied less on the read-option than Chudzinski’s offenses with Carolina. The Panthers rushed 26 times for 134 yards and a 5.2-yard average.
“That’s pretty successful. When you put up those kind of numbers compared to (Seattle’s) running numbers (70 yards on 26 carries), you’d like to think you’re going to win the football game,” Rivera said. “But we do have to have a little more success and we do need to throw the ball a little bit more. So we’re going to continue to work on those things to get that balance back to the offense.”
Olsen said his drop on a wheel route in the first quarter cost his team a big play. But he didn’t have a problem with the game plan.
“When you look back, it’s easy to second-guess everything. I thought our plan was good,” Olsen said. “I thought we had them on their heels at different times. We made critical errors. And that’s not the plays, that’s the guys running them. Between the drops on third down and penalties or turnovers, it’s hard to beat a good team when you do that.”
The Panthers ran 49 offensive plays, their fewest since a 49-play game in a season-opening loss at Tampa Bay last year. Of Newton’s 23 passes, Olsen (10) and Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith (eight) were the target on 18.
In his first two seasons, Newton showed off both a strong arm and nice touch on his deep throws — something wideout Domenik Hixon noticed after signing with the Panthers during the offseason.
“When we were out there for (organized team activities) throwing, you could just tell,” Hixon said. “By a flick of the wrist, that ball can go 60 yards easy.”
Shula was Newton’s position coach his first two seasons, so he knows his strengths as well as anyone.
And despite a run-first reputation as Tampa Bay’s coordinator from 1996-99 and as Alabama’s head coach from 2003-06, Shula said he’ll do whatever is necessary to win.
“I don’t really worry about (labels). We’re going to do what it takes with the personnel we have to go win, however we go do it,” Shula said. “With the personnel we have, we’re not going to be conservative.”
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