"Three And Out": Early Turnovers Doom Panthers In Opener, 30-27

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Photo credit © Jeremy Brevard
By Sports Radio WFNZ

The Carolina Panthers may have started their 2019 season on a sour note, but you weren't getting any grapes from them after a 30-27 loss to the defending NFC champion LA Rams. 

In fact, teammates said that Sunday's story should have had a different ending. 

"We played a great team, but we left more than three points out there,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “That's what it comes down to."

Time ran out on Ron Rivera's squad after a failed onside-kick late in the 4th quarter. But what doomed Carolina were big mistakes in the first half, which put the Panthers in an early hole. 

Getting the ball first to start the game, the Panthers drove past midfield after consecutive passes to DJ Moore, as Carolina looked to draw first blood. 

But as Moore was trying to scurry past two defenders, the second-year receiver fumbled at the Rams 30 and gave the ball to LA, essentially giving it the ball to start the game and second half. 

The Rams were forced to punt, but it was still an opportunity that the Panthers let slip away to strike first.

Panthers kicker Joey Slye, who was kicking in his first NFL regular-season game, also missed a 53-yard field goal wide right to end the quarter.

And as the second quarter opened up, the Panthers yet again shot themselves in the foot. 

Trailing 3-0 after a Greg Zuerlein 49-yard field goal and backed up on their own 15, Newton once again tried to find Moore on a swing pass to the outside, but the pass went behind Moore and the Rams jumped on the ruled fumble. 
Two plays later, Malcolm Brown found the end zone from five yards out to make it 10-0 with 12:50 left in the first half. 

Moore said those series of mistakes left a real bad taste in their mouths before mounting their second-half comeback. 

"It's real frustrating," he said. "We were coming back... we had big plays all across the field from (Christian McCaffrey), me, to Curtis (Samuel), to (Jarius) Wright. Everybody had a hand in making a comeback."

Moore, who battled a two-fumble game his rookie year against the Washington Redskins, said he did his best to try and put those miscues behind him. 

"You just have to come back like I did and play with better ball security throughout the game. That's the only thing you can do."

Since 2015, Carolina is fifth in the NFL with a +18 turnover margin and are second in the league in that stretch with 380 points off turnovers. 

The Panthers finished minus-2 in the turnover margin on Sunday. 

"If you always win the turnover battle, you have a higher chance of winning the game," linebacker Shaq Thompson said. "Kudos to them."

Both the offense and the defense agreed that the sloppy play needs to be left here and now. 

"It could be a Week One thing," running back Christian McCaffrey said. "It could be a Week 10 thing. We've just got to - no matter what - show up and ready to go."
2nd Down - Newton Says He's Healthy, But Is He?

© Jeremy Brevard

As the Panthers dug themselves into that 13-3 halftime deficit, the only way Carolina was going to get back into the game was with Cam Newton leading that second-half comeback throwing the ball. 

Newton finished Sunday's action 25-of-38 for 239 yards, but threw a costly fourth-quarter interception to Corey Littleton as he was trying to find Greg Olsen over the middle. 

Newton, who had shoulder surgery in the off-season and injured his foot in the team's third preseason game (his only action in the preseason), wasn’t on the Panthers injury report this week and appeared to be at full health. 

Newton confirmed that level of health postgame and said that he's felt as good as he's had in years. 

"That's what I'm the most optimistic about," Newton said. "Being able to gauge the throw. My body feels fine and you know whatever play was called, I felt confident. I didn't even think about my shoulder at any point."

Despite Newton's thumbs-up, the game plan still has a lot of people questioning whether Newton's shoulder is indeed as healthy as he claims. 

Panthers receivers had catches of 17 yards (McCaffrey), 15 (Moore), 14 (Olsen) and 16 (Samuel), but a lot of those numbers came from yards after the catch. 

So, if Newton's shoulder is indeed healthy, why didn't Carolina stretch the field and throw the ball downfield?

The Panthers QB said the game plan - along with what the Rams were showing him - didn't allow it. 

"I'm not going to get into any philosophical discussion about throwing the ball downfield because that's not what this game is about," he said. "I took what the defense gave me.

"You don't call plays. You don't say to the coach, 'Let's throw the ball deep and see what that gets us.’ That's not our mentality."

Rivera said he saw nothing wrong with his star QB and doesn't foresee his shoulder issues coming back. 

"I thought he did some really good things,” he said. “He drove us down when we needed to get some points on the board. We had a couple of turnovers that hurt us. When you get opportunities you have to capitalize.

"We didn't."

3rd Down - Shaq Thompson Stars In New Look Defense

© Jeremy Brevard
© Jeremy Brevard

One of the positives in Sunday's loss was the play of linebacker Shaq Thompson, who tied for the lead in tackles with nine. 

A lot of the talk in the offseason was Carolina switching to a 3-4 defense that would allow their star-studded linebacker group of Luke KuechlyMario Addison, and Thompson to make plays. 

And even with the Rams forcing the Panthers to go old school and line up in their former 4-3 front - that didn't stop the Panthers' fifth-year linebacker from roaming sideline to sideline to make plays. 

"[Shaq] developed a really good rapport with Luke," Rivera said. "I thought the two of them were a really good tandem."

Thompson, 25, is entering the final year of his rookie contract and many are looking to him to fill the void left by Thomas Davis, who signed with the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency. 

After one week, Thompson passed, according to his head coach. 

"I thought Shaq played a great game," Rivera said. "When you lose a player like Thomas Davis, you have to have a young man who can step in and that's what happened. Shaq stepped up and played the kind of game we needed from him."

4th Down - Panthers Defense Contains Goff
The sexy news of the week was Rams quarterback Jared Goff receiving a new four-year extension worth $134 million, with $110 million of that guaranteed. 

The Panthers made sure that they weren't going to be the first victims of the Los Angeles signal-caller post contract. 

Goff finished with just 186 yards passing on 39 attempts. 

Goff also had a fumble and threw an interception to James Bradberry in the fourth quarter. 

Overall, Rivera was pleased with what his defense did to not allow Goff to beat them through the air. 

"There was a lot of good things that James did, as did several of the other guys out there,” Rivera said. “We had some guys that really stepped up and accepted the challenge."

What the Panthers wished they had done better was adjust to what Rams coach Sean McVay did with his run game and ultimately finish plays with more turnovers.

"I feel like they started figuring out what we were doing on third down,” Bradberry said. “We've just got to take advantage of opportunities and make plays no matter what is called on the play. I feel like the coaches put together a good scheme for us, and we pretty much handled it well."

The Panthers finished 2018 allowing 240 yards per game passing - good for 18th in the league.

It would appear that Carolina's young secondary is taking steps in the right direction. 

And they will be tested again on a short week this Thursday with quarterback Jameis Winston and receiver Mike Evans coming into Bank of America Stadium.