CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Talk about being one step ahead.
The Carolina Panthers came out taking advantage of single coverage on rookie running back Christian McCaffrey and by game’s end had the Green Bay Packers clinging to whatever defense they could to try to stop quarterback Cam Newton and his offensive mates.
The Panthers hung on for 31-24 victory, but it wasn’t close because their offense was having trouble scoring.
Carolina rolled up 387 yard and Newton threw for four touchdown passes in another flawed performance by the Packers defense.
“I mean, third down was a challenge,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Just couldn’t get off the field on third down. A couple penalties, discipline penalties, no excuse for that.
“But their key players, McCaffrey, (Greg) Olson, we didn’t do a good job limiting their production. They had some big plays on their drives.”
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It all started on the opening drive when McCaffrey accounted for 60 yard of the 85 yards the Panthers drove in 15 plays. He lined up everywhere and when he wasn’t taking pitches from Newton, McCaffrey was getting matched man-to-man with linebackers in the pass game.
He finished the drive with a 7-yard touchdown catch on which linebacker Blake Martinez got picked and was late with coverage.
“It was tough,” linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. “I was watching the game film on him – I did not think that they used him enough. But today, he was all over the field. I saw what he did in college. He can do it all.”
Eventually, defensive coordinator Dom Capers had to go to more zone coverage and as has been the case over the past couple of weeks, the Packers are terrible at zone coverage.
With the pass rush mostly trying to keep Newton contained in the pocket and sacking him just once, the defensive backs and linebackers were never in sync with their coverage.
In the second half, especially, Newton took over, leading touchdown drives of 73, 47 and 75 yards.
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On the first touchdown, safety Josh Jones appeared to be at fault, biting on the wrong receiver in man coverage and letting Olsen, the tight end, run down the field wide open for a 30-yard touchdown. On the second touchdown, Newton threw the ball right between safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and cornerback Josh Hawkins for a 9-yard completion to Damiere Byrd.
Initially, the Byrd touchdown was ruled an incompletion, but the replay official ruled Byrd had control of the football and landed in bounds on his backside.
The last touchdown came with the Packers in zone. Byrd ran a skinny post in front of Hawkins and Clinton-Dix and was wide open.
“We were starting to get more pressure and understand what they were trying to do,” Martinez said. “Overall, it’s about understanding the type of play we are put into.
“We cannot give them easy reads – make them find the open windows. It’s just the little things where Cam was able to make a play – just little things like that.”
Once again, Capers tried to make a go of it with safeties Morgan Burnett and Jermaine Whitehead in the slot in the nickel and dime packages.
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He stuck cornerback Damarious Randall on top receiver Devin Funchess – Randall held him to one catch for 9 yards – but he had no one else who could cover Olsen or McCaffrey on a consistent basis.
Olsen caught nine passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, and McCaffrey caught six passes for 73 yards and a touchdown. The use of McCaffrey is what really confounded the Packers.
BOX SCORE: Panthers 31, Packers 24
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“It’s the new shiny toy,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “What can we do with all the different things and we saw it. We saw we could run the ball with him, we could throw the ball to him, we could split him out. He ends up playing different positions for you."
The Packers did not seem to have an answer for any of it.
“We mixed it up,” Hawkins said. “We were playing a little bit of everything. I just play whatever they call. That’s what we played.”