Panthers coach Ron Rivera is hoping a bye week and some in-depth self-scouting will help the defending NFC champions salvage what is quickly becoming a lost season.
Carolina (1-5) is marred in a four-game losing streak following a 41-38 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, a game in which his young secondary was shredded for the second time in the last three weeks.
“Oh, yeah. It really is a big challenge,” Rivera said Monday. “… The easiest thing to do is quit, but shoot, we’ve got 10 games to play. Atlanta lost (Sunday). So heck, we’re not in a bad spot. What we’ve got to do is take care of our business and doing the things we’re capable of. That starts now.”
Big challenge might be an understatement.
The Panthers are three games behind the Falcons (4-2) in the NFC South — and 0-3 in division play. They’ve matched the worst record through six games for teams coming off a Super Bowl appearance, joining the 1987 New York Giants, 1999 Atlanta Falcons, 2002 St. Louis Rams and 2004 Panthers, who also started 1-5.
Rivera encouraged players to “get away” from football following their practice on Tuesday.
The Panthers are obviously frustrated as evidenced by Cam Newton’s brief postgame interview Sunday — which he ended after about one minute.
During their time off, the coaching staff plans to do extra self-scouting to figure out how a team that went 17-2 last season and reached the Super Bowl has fallen off course.
“Hopefully we get some answers,” Rivera said.
The biggest focus will be the team’s pass defense, which is allowing 282 yards per game and has surrendered 13 touchdowns through the air since jettisoning All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman.
The Panthers have failed to generate much of a pass rush with their starting defensive ends Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy combining for one-half sack this season. That, combined with a young secondary that has been riddled by injuries and lacks game experience, has led to some poor results.
Atlanta’s Matt Ryan threw for 503 yards and Drew Brees put up 465 against the Panthers, the two biggest totals by an opposing quarterback in the franchise’s 22-year history. Both threw for four touchdowns.
“Well, that’s probably the biggest disappointment is we haven’t had the production we would have liked out of the front,” Rivera said. “The front has done a nice job. We’ve done a good job stopping the run. But (the run defense) is not what’s killing us.”
Rivera said the Panthers will look at ways of being more creative on defense to get additional pressure on opposing QBs.
The problem with blitzing more is it leaves Carolina’s young cornerbacks — the Panthers have three rookies on the roster — exposed more in coverage. Carolina has already given up eight passes of more than 40 yards, second most in the NFL.
Rivera said the Panthers are seeing more double teams on defensive tackle Kawann Short, more play-action on first and second down and more chipping on their defensive ends on third down.
“There are some things we’ve got to be able to do to counter that stuff,” Rivera said.
The Panthers were counting on third-year defensive end Ealy to have a big season after he came on strong at the end of last season and had three sacks, a forced fumble and an interception in the Super Bowl. But Ealy has been completely shut down this season, and Rivera acknowledged the team hoped he would be further along in his progression as a player.
“Right now, for a six-game stretch you’d like to see a little more production,” Rivera said. “It’s not like he’s not trying. It’s tough because of the way people approach us now and look at us.”
Defensive end Wes Horton said Monday the biggest difference from last year’s defense that finished in the top 10 in the league overall and first in takeaways is the lack of communication and consistency.
“There are flashes where we’re doing well and other times when guys just aren’t in the right place,” Horton said.
If nothing else, the bye should also help the Panthers get healthier.
They played Sunday without three starters: cornerbacks James Bradberry (toe) and Robert McClain (hamstring) and left tackle Michael Oher (concussion). Defensive tackles Vernon Butler (ankle) and Paul Soliai (foot) also sat out with injuries.