By David Rogers. September 17, 2017. CHARLOTTE, NC – Sunday’s Carolina Panthers 9-3 win over the visiting Buffalo Bills at Bank of America Stadium had the makings of the knockdown, drag out slugfest that it became even before kickoff. You just had to expect it would turn out to be an in-the-trenches melee, even if you didn’t know who would emerge victorious.
COVER IMAGE: Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills nearly threw an early monkey wrench into Panther plans to go undefeated. All photographic images by David Scearce for Blowing Rock News.
Outside of the Panthers organization, there is probably one person in the world who best knows what makes the Carolina offense tick and that is the new head coach of Buffalo, Sean McDermott. That’s because for six years he served as defensive coordinator for the Panthers from 2011 through the 2016 season. One would presume that mentoring his charges against offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s troops would provide a firsthand perspective of how the Carolina offense operates.
But it is a two-way street. Carolina’s offensive braintrust also developed an understanding of McDermott’s tendencies in developing a defensive scheme.
So it is not surprising that Sunday’s matchup of foes with a certain amount of familiarity with each other would evolve as a “chess match,” as Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera described it later in his post-game press conference.
It is tough to win in this league when all you do is kick field goals.
The Panthers held a decisive advantage in time of possession – 38:53 to the Bills’ 21:07 – but for the most part was unable to capitalize, offensively. Part of the explanation might lie with the Carolina offensive line, which allowed quarterback Cam Newton to be sacked a stunning six times for 50 yards lost. In spite of the setbacks, Newton finished the game having completed 20-of-32 passes for a respectable 228 yards with no interceptions and no TDs.Although at times advertising themselves as a run-first offense, Carolina managed just 77 yards rushing, on 28 carries, for an anemic average of 2.8 yards per carry.
But the Panthers also managed to contain one of Buffalo’s biggest offensive threats in running
back LeSean McCoy. “Shady” was an all-pro RB for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011 and 2013 before being traded to Buffalo in 2015. He broke the 1,000 rushing yards season barrier in four of his six seasons with Philadelphia, and in 2016 with the Bills he ran for 1,267 and 13 TDs while also catching 50 passes for 356 yards and one TD.
On Sunday, the Panthers knew they had to contain McCoy if they were going to be successful, and they did in limiting the former University of Pittsburgh star to just 9 yards on 12 attempts – just the fourth time in his 8-year NFL career that he has been held to under 10 total yards carrying the football.
One Panther chess piece that McDermott’s coaching staff may not have seen coming was All-Pro and 16-year veteran defensive end Julius Peppers, who returned to the friendly confines of Bank of America Stadium after four years with the Chicago Bears and the most recent three seasons with the Green Bay Packers.
Peppers was warmly received by Panther Nation at the start of his encore season with Carolina. The former University of North Carolina All-American and 8-year starter for the Panthers after being drafted No. 2 overall by Carolina in the 2002 NFL Draft was credited with two of the team’s three sacks of Buffalo QB Tyrod Taylor. He also recorded one tackle for loss and two QB hurries.
The man who has played on some pretty good teams with the Panthers, Bears and Packers emphasized to reporters after Sunday’s game, “This is the best defense I have ever played on.”
Although the Panthers have yet to face a Drew Brees or Tom Brady-led offense (Carolina’s next two opponents) in 2017, the first two games of the season have shown promise for Charlotte’s favorite sons to return to the level of defensive prowess for which the team has become known. Adding Peppers to a defensive line rotation that includes Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, Mario Addison and Vernon Butler while featuring linebackers Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson may well prove Peppers’ assertion.
The Panthers’ defensive unit allowed Buffalo just one first down in the first half, and only 10 for the entire game. Three of those FDs came in Buffalo’s final drive.
I just didn’t make the catch.
Perhaps the most noteworthy defensive statistic: Carolina’s defense has not allowed a touchdown to be scored against it in the first two games of the season for the first time in team history. If you are a statistics guru, two games is a small data sampling, but if you are an NFL football fan putting some love on the hometown Panthers, it is hope that YOUR team can put the uncharacteristically sub-par 2016 season behind them.
Check Or Checkmate?
Rivera expressed obvious frustration in his post-game comments about the offense’s inability to punch the ball into the end zone for TDs on three “Red Zone” opportunities. Perhaps the most notable came late in the fourth quarter when the Bills’ EJ Gaines was flagged for pass interference in the end zone on a Cam Newton pass intended for wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on the left side. That gave Carolina a first and goal opportunity on the Buffalo one-yard line and with just 4:06 remaining, an expectation for a TD that would put the game on ice for the home crowd.
Everyone in stadium knew that the Panthers would try to punch the ball onto paydirt with a run, including the Bills. So running back Jonathan Stewart’s 2-yard loss up the middle on first down was hardly a surprise and his ability to get only one yard back on second down in crashing against the line of scrimmage over right tackle certainly didn’t fool Buffalo.
On third and goal from the two, Newton’s pass to rookie Christian McCaffrey fluttered to the ground, incomplete leaving the Panthers’ strategists with a decision: go for the TD on fourth down or take the 3-point chip shot for a field goal.
Rivera & Co. opted for the Graham Gano chip shot of a field goal, which put Carolina in front 9-3 with 2:35 remaining in the game, but armchair quarterbacks in the press box wondered aloud if maybe it was the wrong decision.
Consider the alternatives: if successful on the fourth attempt to pound the ball into the end zone for a TD with 4 minutes left, it pretty much becomes the decisive points and guarantees the victory with a 13-3 lead. The Bills would need at least a TD, PAT and a field goal to even tie – and two touchdowns to win (or a TD, 2-point PAT, and an FG). At the very least, they would need two scoring drives and not much time remaining in which to orchestrate those around what would surely be a time-consuming Carolina offensive possession.
The game didn’t boil down to that one play.
In a worst case scenario, Carolina would not score the TD and the Bills would be left with somewhere close to the length of the football field for either a game-tying FG or a winning TD.
But the Panthers chose “Plan B”, to kick the field goal to put them ahead, 9-3, just a six-point differential. In doing so, they eliminated the possibility of a game-tying field goal, but they allowed the Bills to start the next possession from their own 25 (after the Gano kickoff for a touchback) rather than with their backs against the wall from their own 2-yard line. Given the extra 23 yards of “breathing room”, the Bills had an increased probability of scoring a game winning touchdown and PAT that would make the probable final score 10-9.
As it turned out, the Panthers survived a 12-play drive by the Tyrod Taylor-led Bills that left the Panther faithful’s collective hearts thumping at the end. On 4th and 11 from the CAR 33, TaylorW scrambled out of the pocket to his right and spotted rookie wide receiver (East Carolina) having beat his defender and headed for the end zone.
With barely nine seconds left the outcome of the game hinged on this single pass. Unfortunately for the Bills, Jones had to twist awkwardly while leaping for the reception and the ball slipped just through his outstretched hands, falling incomplete. He came oh-so-close to making the catch and his momentum would have taken him across the goal line and Buffalo’s 2017 season highlight reel.
The Bills’ McDermott was all about high praise for his team’s defensive performance against the Panthers as well as that last minute opportunity afterwards in telling reporters, “Those guys played hard. The whole team played hard. To have a chance to win the game at the end, that’s what you look for, an opportunity like that. We had a good opportunity, a good look at it. We just came up short.”
Jones took responsibility for the non-catch. “The ball just came my way and I did not make the play. I think it was a well-thrown ball. It was a perfect play to beat the coverage. I just didn’t make the catch.”
Taylor was among the first to reach Jones after the ball slipped through his fingers, consoling him. He said later, in the locker room, “He (Jones) is a young player. A lot is being asked of him. There are a lot of plays that are going to be made and a lot not going to be made. The main thing is to learn from it and continue to move forward. Don’t let that hinder him moving forward, just learn from it, brush it off. As a team we have his back. Like I said (the game) didn’t boil down to (just) that (one play). Would that have helped? Yes, but (there are) other plays out there that I didn’t make, as a team we didn’t make. As a team we have to learn from it.”
Rivera was gracious in victory and quick to complement both McDermott and the Buffalo Bills.
“Buffalo forced us to miss some opportunities,” he noted. “Give those guys credit. They are going to be a good football team. People better not sleep on them…I thought Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier did a nice job with their defense. Their defensive front was very active and created a lot of problems for us…We need to put ourselves in a position to score points. It is tough to win in this league when all you do is kick field goals…”
Carolina will try to make it three in a row next Sunday in a 1:00 pm kickoff vs. the New Orleans Saints, led by all-but-certain future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. The Saints (0-2) lost to the New England Patriots, 36-20 in New Orleans on Sunday, but Brees completed 27-of-45 passes for 356 yards and two TDs, with no interceptions in the loss. The Patriots’ Tom Brady passed for 447 yards on 30-of-39 passing, complementing a New England defensive performance that limited the Saints trio of highly regarded running backs (Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara) to a combined 81 net yards rushing on 17 carries.