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Breakdown: A dozen plays pivotal to the Carolina Panthers’ season

jjones@charlotteobserver.comOctober 11, 2013 

— The average NFL game includes about 120 individual plays.

But coaches often says each game can be whittled down to three to five plays that determine the outcome, and either his team made the plays, or it didn’t.

With a 1-3 record, the Carolina Panthers haven’t made enough plays so far. From dropped touchdowns to miscommunications to breakdowns on defense, the plays that matter have mostly gone against the Panthers.

Coach Ron Rivera has said repeatedly that the missed opportunities haven’t come down to a particular player.

“We had opportunities and we didn’t take advantage of them,” Rivera said Monday following Carolina’s 22-6 loss at Arizona. “Whether we dropped a ball, missed a throw, missed a block, we missed a cut, we missed a tackle, we didn’t fit our gap. And that’s disappointing.

“The hard part is, again, it comes back to not necessarily being just one spot or one individual or one group. And that’s the part that’s hard. If it was, it could be fixed immediately. Now it’s about making sure that we continue to push forward and work on those things and get better.”

Here’s a deeper look at 12 plays – three from each game – that have led to the Panthers’ 1-3 record:

Week 1 vs. Seattle (a 12-7 loss)

•  Second and 10 at the Carolina 43, 10:21 left in the fourth quarter: Carolina’s defense had held a potent Seattle offense without a touchdown for more than three quarters before Russell Wilson found Jermaine Kearse down the sideline for a 43-yard touchdown. Seattle receiver Stephen Williams ran a similar route on the previous play against starting cornerback Josh Thomas but couldn’t come up with the catch. Wilson attacked Thomas again, and the third-year corner failed to push his receiver toward Charles Godfrey for safety help. Kearse’s catch gave Seattle a 12-7 lead.

•  Second and 2, Seattle 24, 5:34 left in the fourth quarter: DeAngelo Williams had rushed for 70 yards, leading all rushers up to that point, but it would be a costly fumble with the Panthers driving to take the lead that would matter. Williams gained 16 yards to inside the Seattle 10 before Earl Thomas punched the ball out of Williams’ grasp. The Seahawks recovered.

•  Third and 3, Seattle 15, 4:35 left in the fourth quarter: Carolina had two timeouts plus the 2-minute warning, and a stop give the offense a final chance. Doug Baldwin rubbed off a fellow receiver and beat cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for a 13-yard reception and a first down. Seattle held on for the final 5:25 to win the game.

Week 2 at Buffalo (a 24-23 loss)

•  Second and 16 at the Buffalo 26, 12:04 left in the first quarter: Carolina drove 48 yards in six plays against the Buffalo defense to start the game, but Newton was sacked on first down. Newton never took his eyes off his primary receiver on second down, and Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso made a diving interception at the Bills’ 19.

•  Fourth and 1 at the Buffalo 21, 1:42 left in the fourth quarter: After a third-and-5 rush by Mike Tolbert came up one yard short, the Bills used their final timeout. If Carolina got the yard, the Panthers could kneel the game away, but Rivera elected to kick a field goal. Graham Gano’s 39-yarder put Carolina up 23-17, and put the game in the hands of the defense, which would have to contain rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel from scoring a touchdown.

•  Second and 1 at the Carolina 2, six seconds left in the fourth quarter: With Buffalo needing a touchdown to win, reserve cornerback D.J. Moore, in the game because of four injuries in the Carolina secondary, can be seen motioning to Josh Norman to switch the receivers each was covering. Norman said he didn’t get the signal, and wide receiver Stevie Johnson was left wide open for the touchdown catch. Norman hasn’t been active for a game since.

Week 3 vs. N.Y. Giants(a 38-0 win)

•  Fourth and 1 at the New York 2, 2:38 left in the 1st quarter: The Panthers came up just short of a first-and-goal on a pass to Greg Olsen. Rivera kept his offense on the field, and Mike Tolbert went off right end into the end zone, giving the Panthers a 7-0 lead against the Giants in a game both teams badly needed to win.

•  Third and 3 at the New York 45, 15:00 left in the second quarter: The Giants had gotten the ball back after a punt hit Panthers special teamer Richie Brockel near midfield in a “here we go again” moment for many Panthers fans. But rookie defensive tackle Kawann Short busted up the middle to get the sack – one of Carolina’s seven that day – and forced the Giants to punt.

•  First and 10 at the Carolina 30, 13:41 left in the third quarter: Carolina was up 17-0 going into halftime, but the coaching staff knew it had to step on the Giants’ neck to avoid a Giants comeback. DeAngelo Williams’ 27-yard rush went a long way to asserting that dominance. His rush to the left end was led by guard Amini Silatolu, and tight end Greg Olsen provided solid blocking downfield. Carolina would later score.

Week 5 at Arizona (a 22-6 loss)

•  Third and 3 at the Arizona 4, 7:35 left in 1st quarter: Newton was playing well on the first drive of the game, going 5-for-5 for 70 yards. Steve Smith made a quick inside move and used Brandon LaFell to screen his defender when Newton fired a sure touchdown pass into Smith’s sure hands – except Smith dropped it. It’d be one of four drops on the day for Carolina receivers, including a crucial fourth-down drop by LaFell later. Smith would later say the entire game changed on his drop.

•  Third and 5 at the Arizona 29, 15:00 left in the second quarter: Karlos Dansby’s delayed blitz up the middle dropped Newton for a loss of 11 yards and put Carolina out of field-goal range. A conversion could have meant an eventual touchdown, but anything but taking the sack would have nearly guaranteed a Gano field goal and a 6-0 lead over Arizona.

•  Kickoff, 5:48 left in third quarter: The game’s first touchdown had put Arizona up 10-6 when Jordan Senn committed one of nine Carolina penalties on the day. He and Chase Blackburn were blocking Alfonso Smith on a kickoff that would be a touchback, pushing Smith to the ground. The referees called a personal foul and backed Carolina up 10 yards. Two plays later, Newton was sacked for a safety.

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

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