Panthers melt down in second half against Bucs

Tampa Bay running back Ronald Jones II breaks away from the Carolina defense on his way to a 98-yard touchdown run during the Buccaneers' 46-23 win Sunday in Charlotte. (Brian Westerholt / AP Photo)

In recent weeks, the Panthers have suffered some frustrating close losses, with missed field goals at the final gun or last-ditch drives gone wrong.

That wasn’t a problem on Sunday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers outscored Carolina 29-6 in the second half to break open a tie game and win 46-23 at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers were swept by the Bucs in the regular season for the first time in eight years, losing by 23 and 14 points. Carolina’s other five losses have come by a total of 24 points.

Carolina played without running back Christian McCaffrey, who returned from an ankle injury last week only to hurt his shoulder. The Panthers also had to finish the game with backup PJ Walker at quarterback after Teddy Bridgewater was hit in the knee late in the game and taken to the locker room.

Coach Matt Rhule didn’t have an update on Bridgewater’s status after the game.

“He got up and walked off (to the locker room),” Rhule said. “But when it comes to knees, I never know. I don’t have a feel, one way or the other. Game’s over, I come in, he’s not in there.”

Three thoughts

1. The game was tied 17-17 at the half, but the Panthers’ season-long struggles in the third quarter continued. The Panthers were outscored 12-0 in the third on Sunday, bringing their total for the season to a 55-24 deficit in the third quarter. The Panthers have scored at least 64 points in each of the other three quarters of the game this season.

“It’s one of the few things we haven’t improved on this year, third quarters,” Rhule said. “To me (we were in good shape), 17-17 with that team. We need to figure something out in the third quarter.”

Center Matt Paradis agreed.

“We have to do better,” he said. “We can’t have this performance in the third quarter or second half. That was not all right.”

2. In addition to the third quarter woes, another three haunted the Panthers. The team struggled on both sides of the ball on third down. Carolina allowed Tampa to convert 10 of 16 third down attempts in the game, which led to a more than 12-minute advantage in time of possession. The Panthers offense converted just one of nine attempts on third down.

“We have to get better at them,” Rhule said. “No one feels sorry for us. They pressured us. At the end of the day, we were 1 of 9 on third down. In the first half, we were able to get away with it with some big plays. We were 0-for-4 in the second half.”

3. Rhule called the Panthers’ performance against the Tampa Bay offense as “a slow methodical bleed on our defense.” Even when the Panthers got the advantage in field position, things imploded on defense. Tampa got the ball on its own 2-yard line in the third quarter, and running back Ronald Jones became the fourth player in NFL history to run 98 yards for a touchdown. Safety Tre Boston missed a tackle near the line of scrimmage.

“We blitzed off the right side and couldn’t get the ball down and couldn’t run him down,” Rhule said. “We’re at a stage now where everyone has to be right to be successful. When someone doesn’t do their assignment. … It was very similar to the first game, where they ran one for 68 yards.”

Number to Know

217-34 — The Panthers were outgained in the third quarter by more than sixfold. Tampa gained 217 yards on three scoring drives, while the Panthers managed just 34 yards. Carolina punted once, threw an interception and turned it over on downs, managing just two first downs in the quarter.

They Said It

“Completely unacceptable from every member of that locker room, player and coach.”

— Panthers coach Matt Rhule

Player of the Game

Trent Cannon, Panthers return man — The third-year pro entered the game with just 79 snaps on the year and a total of 18 yards gained. He found out he was going to be the team’s first option on kick return on Sunday, however.

“I knew I was going to be back there,” he said.

He fielded three kicks in the game, returning them for 151 yards, topping his career total by more than 30 yards. The big day included a 98-yard kick return to the 4-yard line that set up the Panthers’ lone touchdown of the second half.

“I definitely thought I was clear,” he said. “I thought I was going to score. I had a clear way to the end zone. I’ll get it next time, though.”

Critical thinking

The Panthers are now 3-7 and the injuries are mounting. McCaffrey missed the game and, with the team’s struggles, an argument could be made for shutting him down and letting him get well. Bridgewater is now a question mark, and McCaffrey’s backup Mike Davis also suffered an injury in the game, hurting his thumb. He was able to return to the game late in the fourth quarter, but still, the team is running low on skill position players.