Through the first three games of the season, the Panthers were their old selves in terms of protecting the ball, only serving up a combined two turnovers to the Cowboys, Falcons and Bengals; the past two weeks, however, the Panthers have five total turnovers which led to 17 points and ultimately needed a franchise record field goal to avoid going 0-2 since the bye. Against the Redskins, while the early turnovers may have put them in a hole, it felt like a distant memory as the the Panthers pressed the ‘Skins late in the game and were ultimately unable to overcome the early 17 point hole.
The difference in this game, as it was in their loss to the Atlanta Falcons, came on third down.
The ‘Skins mirrored the Falcons, getting themselves repeatedly into third-and-manageable situations. The Alex Smith-led attack was just 1-of-8 on third downs where they needed six or more yards. On the flip side, the Skins were 6-of-8 on third-and-5 or shorter, including 3-of-4 in the third quarter, with the Panthers fighting to get themselves back into the game – just as in the loss to the Falcons, it was the defense’s inability to get off the field that ultimately contributed to the loss. Atlanta managed to convert 2-of-5 third downs of more than six yards and 4-of-6 that were five yards or less. 10 of the 12 third-and-short (1-5 yards) conversions allowed by the Panthers this season were in these two games.
Third Down Conversions
|Opponent||Overall||Third and Long (More Than Six)||Third and Short (Five Or Less)|
Though a small sample size (made smaller by the early bye), the Panthers are one of only five teams allowing 60+% conversions on third-and-five-or-less. By contrast, they’re the league’s best, allowing only 20% conversions on third-and-6+. After the Skins game, defensive coordinator Eric Washington said he’s not looking for reasons, he’s looking for the defense to improve.
A defense that has long been based on allowing a catch short of the sticks and making quick tackles, the Panthers don’t have that luxury on third and short; Eric Washington has mixed up coverage and blitzes, but third and short is effectively a coin flip. On some third-and-manageables, we’ve seen superior talents – Julio Jones and AJ Green – win one-on-one matchups in the slot. On others, we’ve seen the defense account for everyone except Matt Ryan, who twice burned him with his feet.
The numbers are not out of line from where they have been under two defensive coordinators who earned themselves head coaching gigs. Instead, as the Panthers attempt to traverse the NFC South, the coaching staff will have to decide if there are changes that can be made for the defense or if they need to adjust elsewhere. Both Atlanta and Washington played out in front, allowing them more flexibility in their playcalling throughout the game.
Rather than a defensive shift, perhaps the onus for change lies on the offense.
As it stands, the Panthers are ninth in the NFC and last in their division in terms points per game. With five games remaining against the division, including the final three weeks of 2018, the best way for the Panthers to impose their defensive will on teams is to force their opponents to play from behind; against Washington, the early turnovers prevented that, allowing Alex Smith to be a chain-moving game manager with a lead, the perfect scenario for him. This Panthers team has a good defense, but not a special one. If the Panthers can be more aggressive about getting points on the board, the offense will help the defense far better than a scheme shift on third-and-short.
Numerous factors played into the Panthers disappointing loss on Sunday, but going forward it will fall to the offense to do more, because in today’s NFL – that’s the unit that has a chance to be special.