Defensive failures doom promising Panthers season

Opponents’ big plays and the inability to slow quarterbacks have undermined Cam Newton’s big season

Cleveland wide receiver Jarvis Landry celebrates next to Panthers safety Eric Reid after scoring a 51-yard touchdown during the Browns’ 26-20 win. (Ron Schwane/AP Photo)

As the Carolina Panthers see their playoff hopes fade to what coach Ron Rivera said was a “5 percent” chance of making the postseason, Cam Newton continues one of his best seasons in the NFL.

The eighth-year quarterback has thrived in coordinator Norv Turner’s offense. His completion percentage of 68.8 percent is more than 7 points higher than in any other season, and his touchdown percentage, interception percentage and yards per attempt are all his best since his MVP year of 2015. Furthermore, his 251 yards per game are the most since his rookie year.

Even during the Panthers’ five-game losing streak that derailed a 6-2 start to the year, Newton has had (other than an increase in interception rate) very little drop-off.

So what has led to the lost season in Carolina? A defense that has essentially forced the Panthers to face a Cam Newton on the other side of the field every week.

The problem has gotten progressively worse as the year has gone on. In their first eight games, only three opposing quarterbacks — Matt Ryan, Alex Smith and Carson Wentz — had passer ratings higher than their season average. Not coincidentally, Carolina lost two of those games and very nearly got swept in all three. The Panthers held the likes of Dak Prescott, Eli Manning, Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco below their season average.

Starting with Ben Roethlisberger’s perfect passer rating in a Thursday night blowout, however, opposing quarterbacks have topped their season rating in four of the five games of the losing streak.

The opposing passers have torched the Panthers secondary for big play after big play. Following Sunday’s loss at Cleveland, Rivera pointed out, “Four of their plays accumulated almost 200 yards.”

Basically, every time the Browns fell behind, the Panthers defense allowed a big play to bring them back. After Carolina took the opening kickoff and scored a touchdown, Mayfield hit a 66-yard touchdown to Breshad Perriman on the first snap from scrimmage.

When the Panthers took a 14-7 lead, Mayfield hit Jarvis Landry for a 51-yard game-tying score. A 28-yard pass by David Njoku set up a game-tying field goal just before half, and a run of 51 yards by Landry wiped out the Panthers’ final lead and gave Cleveland its first.

The Browns added a 29-yard Nick Chubb run to set up a clinching score.

“I thought we played hard and played well,” Rivera said of the defense, pointing out that Carolina shut down Cleveland in the third quarter. “For the most part we contained their runner, Chubb.”

For the most part, but all it took was one breakdown here and there, both in the game and for the season.

“Some of it is routine stuff,” Rivera said. “Some guy trying to do too much. Sometimes it’s guys not knowing how. Those are young guys.”

The veterans have also been victimized, however. Captain Munnerlyn was the one that was beaten by Wilson for long fourth-quarter gains in the home loss to Seattle. Eric Reid, another vet, was torched on the two 50-plus yard passes in Cleveland.

“It gave them momentum,” Reid said of the opening 66-yarder. “Obviously, we don’t want to start a game that way. It gave them a lot of yards to start with. I know it gave them confidence. I wish we can have that one back. That’s one of the plays that I’m in position. I’m trying to get my head around to find the ball. I had my hand on the ball, I just have to get it out. It’s unfortunate.”

Of the 51-yard pass, he said, “It dropped in there. I had my hand on him, but Jarvis did a good job bringing it in. Just a play I have to make.”

Four plays against Cleveland. A handful against Seattle. It’s the difference between winning and losing, between a playoff berth and a hot seat for a coach. For the Panthers, it’s become a fatal flaw.