Panthers look for answers on offense

Rivera says team needs to “find out who we are”

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is sacked by Bears outside linebacker Leonard Floyd during Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. (Dennis Wierzbicki / USA TODAY Sports)

The Carolina Panthers defense had a history-making performance against the Bears. The Panthers gave up just five first downs in the game, breaking the franchise record of seven, which had stood since 1995. In fact, Carolina was the first NFL team to allow just five first downs in a game since 2014.

The Panthers gave up just 153 yards, their fewest since 2013 and second-fewest given up in the league this season.

All of which makes it even harder to believe that the Panthers lost to the Bears by two touchdowns.

“We outgained them,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We out-possessed them.” And yet, the Bears scored two defensive touchdowns while holding the Panthers to three points, their worst offensive output since Nov. 13, 2011.

“I’m disappointed,” Cam Newton said. “No excuse. We squandered an opportunity.”

It’s the second time this season that the Panthers have been held to single digits. In the previous 61 games, Carolina had been held to single digits just twice.

So what ails the Panthers offense?

Part of the problem is the absence of Greg Olsen, who suffered a broken foot in the second game of the season and is out until at least Nov. 26. The tight end was a big-play threat and gave Newton a safety valve.

“You miss Greg for more than that reason,” Rivera said. “You miss his ability to run routes and impact a defense. You miss the calming effect he brings to the huddle and the line of scrimmage.”

Olsen’s absence also puts pressure on the rest of the offense.

“Very much so,” Rivera said. “Having him there takes little bit of pressure off of (tight end) Ed Dickson, who’s really splitting roles. It takes pressure off the receivers — now he’s the through-the-middle-of-the-defense threat, and it helps the quarterback tremendously.”

Olsen’s absence leaves the offense much younger and less experienced. Curtis Samuel, whose fumbled option pitch was returned 75 yards for the Bears first score, has struggled in his rookie season.

“You’ve got to ask, ‘Are we asking too much of him too soon?’” Rivera said. “It’s a lot to learn and a lot to do. … I think we may be stressing him a lot. He’s doing as good a job as he can, but there’s a lot to learn.”

That’s the case across the offense, as Rivera considers whether things need to be simplified, based on the personnel.

“Based on the number of new guys, yes,” he said. “You put some new guys on the field, and it’s not like you’ve had in the past. We’re missing Greg and (injured center) Ryan Kalil, veteran guys. With them, when they communicated, it was simple hand signals, and the tempo of the offense picked up. With so many new guys, as you go through the communication, it takes longer to register.”

Which leaves the team at a crossroads as it heads to Tampa Bay.

“The old saying — everybody has a plan until you get hit in the mouth,” Rivera said. “Well, we got hit in the mouth. Now we have to find out who we are.”