Continued red-zone inefficiency costly for Carolina Panthers

jjones@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 15, 2013 

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith can’t handle a pass from quarterback Cam Newton during fourth quarter action. The Buffalo Bills and cornerback Leodis McKelvin kept Carolina out of the end zone on two fourth-quarter series, forcing field goals and giving themselves a chance to win.

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

— When asked about his offense’s execution Sunday against Buffalo, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said they were “this close,” holding his index and middle fingers inches apart.

When Carolina got inside the Buffalo 20-yard line late, the Panthers couldn’t punch the ball in the end zone, continuing a theme that’s plagued the offense since the preseason.

Twice in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s last-minute, 24-23 loss, the Panthers had the ball in the red zone. And twice kicker Graham Gano had to kick field goals after the Panthers offense couldn’t find the end zone with tries inside the Buffalo 9. That resulted in a total of six points for a team who needed more.

“It’s tough because we know we need (touchdowns),” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “The defense has been balling out, playing their (butts) off all game. It’s our turn. We couldn’t put it in the box. At least we came away with something, but it wasn’t enough.”

Officially, the Panthers are 2-for-4 in red-zone efficiency this season, following their 1-for-1 performance last week against Seattle with a 1-for-3 showing against Buffalo.

But that doesn’t include DeAngelo Williams’ fumble last week against Seattle; That came at the 8, after a 16-yard run.

The red-zone statistic underscores just how close Carolina was again Sunday.

Following a sack and forced fumble by Quintin Mikell on Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel, the Panthers got to the Bills’ 4 less than a minute into the fourth quarter.

While Newton barely avoided a sack near the 20, he dumped a pass to Brandon LaFell for a loss of 5 yards. Williams went up the middle for no gain. Then a pass to Steve Smith went incomplete 3 yards short of the goal line.

Gano’s 27-yard field goal was good.

Two plays later, Luke Kuechly’s interception put the Panthers on the Buffalo 26, and it wasn’t long before Carolina had a first down at the Buffalo 12. Williams rushed twice for a total of 6 yards, and Newton scrambled out of the pocket and was sacked by defensive end Mario Williams.

Gano’s 25-yard field goal was good.

“It’s very frustrating,” Newton said of the red-zone inefficiency. “I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that. It’s very frustrating.

“The defense played lights out with getting two turnovers and giving us a short field. We’ve got to somehow find a way to translate that into points. If we do that, we win the game, hands down. But at the same time it’s been the story of our lives being in tough, tight games. And somehow we just have to find a way to win the game.”

The lone red-zone score came in the second quarter when Newton found tight end Greg Olsen at the goal line with a laser 13-yard pass.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera has been dealing with his offense’s inability to score touchdowns since the preseason. The Panthers have mustered four offensive touchdowns when Newton was on the field in three exhibitions and two regular season games.

“You can’t win, necessarily, if you don’t score touchdowns,” Rivera said. “In this league, the way things are set up, when teams have a chance to score touchdowns, you have to score touchdowns. Obviously we didn’t do that. That was the difference. We could have easily gone up by seven, by 10, by 14. We didn’t do that.

“Again, that will come back to get you.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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