The Panthers got off to a horrendous start in their 31-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. – head coach Matt Rhule called it ugly and he wasn’t wrong.

But you can learn from ugliness.

The second half was much different – Carolina rallied from a 21-0 halftime deficit to pull within 24-17 behind a pair of second-half touchdown runs by Christian McCaffrey – more on him in a minute. However – and here comes the ugliness again – with a chance to get off the field and their offense the ball back, the defense allowed Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 103 yards and two touchdowns, to rumble untouched 46 yards for a touchdown to put the game on ice.

A good performance with an ugly ending that will leave a bad taste in their mouth until next Sunday.

“We just have to be disciplined in our gaps,” said defensive end Brian Burns, who had two of the three Panthers’ tackles for loss on the day. “Everybody’s just got to do their jobs and that play won’t happen.”

The Panthers mistakes – and turnovers – throughout the game were just too much to overcome. 

“Turnovers and the costly penalties,” Rhule said after the game. “A bunch of third-down stops that hurt us. We had a couple of pass interference calls and a hands to the face after we stopped them on third down. And then we stopped them on third down on the second drive, but he [Derrick Brown] landed on the guy. So that’s four or five killing-drive penalties, and there’s no chance of winning having all of those. The key to their first half was their third downs. They were 6-of-8 on third down, a lot of those were penalties.”

But moments like that are teachable for the Panthers first-round pick – Derrick Brown spent time with Rhule the day after the game and the coach explained to him that kind of effort will never be frowned upon.

“I told him, forget the penalties. He’s 335 pounds and he’s running 20 yards down the field – he can’t stop and lands on the guy. I said, try and get rid of it, but he’s playing the way we want him to play,” Rhule said Monday. “I think when penalties are made out of elite effort, we just have to deal with it….the aggressive penalties, I can live with.”

Photo Credit: Brandon Todd/Carolina Panthers

In his first start as the Panthers quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater completed 22-of-34 passes for 269 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions. Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a much different story. 

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Bridgewater struggled as he turned the ball over three times during the contest. Afterwards, Bridgewater took ownership of his performance – realizing that he needs to play better. 

“The one screen just got away from me, and I was pissed about that. The fumble, I was just stepping up in the pocket trying to find my guy, but those guys make plays too. And that last interception, I just have to do a little better with my ball placement. I tried to anticipate the throw and left it a little bit behind D.J. [Moore],” said Bridgewater after the game. “We will get back to work tomorrow and see what things didn’t go well and see what things we did well and try to put this game behind us.”

“I take supreme pride in taking care of the football, so to have three turnovers today, that’s not the way I play this game.”

Rhule had his own theory on what Bridgewater struggled on Sunday – the Panthers QB was sacked five times and was constantly under pressure much of the afternoon after only being sacked once in Week 1. Rhule says he believes that played a significant role in Bridgewater’s mistakes. 

“I thought Teddy was under duress too much of the day,” Rhule said. “We knew they were a pressure-based defense, but too often they were getting their hands on them. I thought Teddy competed. There’s going to be days where you can’t get things going offensively. But I was proud that he kept pushing it and got us back in the game.”

“To have it that ugly of a game and to be within seven points with a couple minutes left, he showed competitive toughness out there.” 

Photo Credit: Kyle Zedaker/Tampa Bay Bucs

Just a week after having zero turnovers with the Raiders, the turnovers played a huge part in Sunday’s loss. The Panthers committed four giveaways, leading to 17 points. Bridgewater accounted for three turnovers himself, and wide receiver Robby Anderson lost a fumble. Plus, the Panthers committed four critical penalties that resulted in first downs.

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“Four or five times we stopped them on third down and a penalty extended the drive for them – against Tom Brady and those guys and you can’t do that,” Rhule said. “That’s also kind of a positive to me coming off of last week where we weren’t able to stop the run, where we weren’t able to get off the field. And I think we held them to 32 yards rushing in the first half.”

“We didn’t have great rush defense the first week, it was better until that last drive. So what we want to see from the first game to the second game, improvement in these areas. I think offensively, we have to get to the root of why we are having these turnovers because it is never what you quite think. It’s a block here, it’s a guy running the wrong route, it can be many different things.”

“We know we can’t have the penalties, now we have to get to the business where we are eliminating those things.”

During their first two games of the season, the Panthers have zero sacks on the season. This is after the team registered 53 sacks during the regular season in 2019, which was second in the league – now, they are the only team in the league without a sack.

Photo Credit: Brandon Todd/Carolina Panthers

Rhule says part of the reason for the lack of pass rush was because the team was playing more of a three-man front. 

“They get the ball out of their hands quickly,” Rhule said after the game. “I have to watch the tape, but we need to have more pressure than that. I thought, in the second half, I thought Brian Burns came alive – he had one key quarterback pressure. We had to have a little bit of a blitz mindset today.” 

Dating back to last season, the Panthers have lost 10 consecutive games. For the players that were on the team last year, it has certainly gotten old – taking solace and moral victories are not going to cut it.

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“It’s very tough – and I’m sick of it,” Burns said. “Honestly, we gotta do something to turn this around because this one hurt. We need to fix something, we need to fix this – starting tomorrow.” 

Now the Panthers will not only have to recover from an 0-2 start, but they’ll have to do it without their best player. Running back Christian McCaffrey suffered a high ankle sprain in the third quarter which will put him out anywhere from four to six weeks.

McCaffrey says he wants to get back as soon as possible – he views the four- to six-week timeline as a challenge – but he won’t come back before he is fully healthy. Talk of shutting him down in what many have been calling a rebuilding season in Carolina is falling on deaf ears.

“I’m going to do everything I can to rush to get back, honestly,” McCaffrey said. “We have such a great training staff that they’re transparent with me and I’m transparent with them. I’d never do anything to jeopardize my team, so I’ll make sure I’m 100% healthy and I’m going to try to rush back as fast as I can – as long as I’m 100% healthy.”

McCaffrey also believes the Panthers are better than what they’ve shown during their 0-2 start and hopes the team continues to improve on the mistakes they’ve had this season, echoing cornerback Donte Jackson, who rebuffed the idea that the Panthers were tanking after the game in Tampa.

“We’ve lost two games, not because we’re a bad team,” McCaffrey said. “That’s something that can be corrected, injury or not with me. This team has a lot of fight. Our team has a lot of resiliency. And we have the right guys to pick it up from here.”

“I wanted to address that first because there’s a lot of talk with how we’re going to be as a team. Well, we have the right culture. It’s still early, and there is still hope.”

(Top Photo Via Brandon Todd/Carolina Panthers)

Antwan S
Antwan Staley has written for publications such as USA TODAY, Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.