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Carolina Panthers | From red-zone boom to relative bust

Offense hasn’t been the Carolina Panthers problem during their four-game losing streak, although they’re not without their flaws on that side of the ball.

Losing streak aside, Carolina’s already-resurgent offense ranks fourth-best in the NFL over the past four weeks with 1,549 total yards, which averages out to 387 yards per game. That’s up from the 372-yard average over the first eight games. By themselves, both yards per game figures would represent the second-highest single-season mark under Ron Rivera.

But yards mean nothing without points, and more often than not teams earn their points in the red zone.

Fortunately for the Panthers (6-6), red zone efficiency is their most notable area of improvement under first-year offensive coordinator Norv Turner — despite a significant drop off over the past four weeks.

Carolina’s red zone offense was the most efficient in the league from Week 1 to Week 9, scoring a touchdown on 81 percent of its trips inside the 20-yard line. Its 21 touchdowns and 1.4 percent turnover rate each tied for fifth-best in the NFL.

Considering the Panthers only converted 54 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns last season, the improvement was more than dramatic — it was absurd.

And,. Turner said, it wasn’t sustainable.

“I think you go in different cycles during the season,” Turner said Thursday. “We were converting touchdowns at such a high rate, you’d like to think that’s going to continue but it’s usually a third-down conversion, a throw and a catch — a one-play thing, that’s the difference. We hit a bunch of those … you’re not always going to do that.

“We were two out of three last week in the red zone. Obviously, against Seattle we missed a fourth-and-1, we threw an interception, in the two-minute we ran out of time — those things are going to happen during the season. We work hard on the red zone. We have a good plan and we’ve been doing a great job of getting the ball into the end zone.”

Of Carolina’s red zone touchdowns, seven came on third down and nine came from outside the 10. Only twice — a Chrsitian McCaffrey fumble in Week 1 and a turnover on downs during a potential go-ahead drive in Week 6 — did Carolina fail to come away from the red zone with a touchdown or field goal.

But as Turner suggested, that wasn’t sustainable.

Since their losing streak began in Week 10, the Panthers have only converted 63 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns — good for 17th-best in the NFL. While only three of their 16 trips — a missed field goal in Week 11 and an interception and turnover on downs in Week 12 — didn’t end in points, the missed opportunities came in games the Panthers lost by a combined four points.

Carolina’s defense bears the brunt of the team’s struggles over the past four weeks, but its offense has nearly been good enough to overcome its counterpart’s shortcomings.

Reversing the trend in the red zone will be critical for the Panthers as they look to end a potentially season-derailing losing streak.

The opportunities to improve are there — the Panthers have averaged one more red zone trip per game over the past four weeks than they did during their 6-2 start, and their nine touchdowns are the third-most in the NFL in that span.

Can Carolina turn things around this weekend against Cleveland (4-7-1)? Maybe.

The Browns, though, boast the league’s third-best red zone defense since Week 10.

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