CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey lined up in the Wildcat position behind the center on fourth down and less than a yard from the Tampa Bay 2. Quarterback Cam Newton lined up outside right tackle Taylor Moton, hoping to draw the defense in his direction.
Wide receiver Curtis Samuel lined up in the slot to the left, then went right behind McCaffrey on the snap, as though he was going to get the ball on a reverse.
Tampa Bay outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett didn’t bite. Neither did cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who met McCaffrey at the 2 and pushed the eighth pick of the 2018 draft out of bounds short of the first-down marker and goal line.
“It was stacked," said Chris Manhertz, who lined up on the left side of Carolina’s two-tight end set with less than a minute and a half left.
The Panthers failed to convert on 4th & 1 from the Buccaneers 2-yard line late in the 4th quarter on a play that resembled the "Philly Special." pic.twitter.com/rt9DM1Mi13— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 13, 2019
The Bucs stacked the defense to stop McCaffrey all night in the 20-14 victory on Thursday that dropped the Panthers to 0-2 for the first time since 2013. They showed no respect for Newton as a runner, loading the box to shut down McCaffrey and forcing the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly when a pass was called.
Newton failed, missing 15 wide-open targets, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking.
McCaffrey, a week after having 128 yards rushing and 81 receiving, didn’t stand a chance. He had 56 total yards, spending much of the night drawn into blocking blitzing defenders.
He had a career-high 15 pass-block snaps, according to Pro Football Focus stats.
“They do what we call a green dog, because they bring a guy up inside," Rivera explained. “The idea [is] he has him in man coverage, but it looks like they’re blitzing, so Christian had to step up."
That’s something the coaching staff must examine before players return Tuesday from a three-day break to prepare for consecutive road games against Arizona and Houston.
This is where it comes back to Newton, who took much of the blame Thursday. Because he has been rendered one-dimensional in the read-option, rushing five times for minus-2 yards, opponents can continue to gang up on McCaffrey.
That means more run-pass option, which means Newton has to be more effective completing the short and intermediate passes. He failed there against the Bucs, not only missing open receivers, but missing badly while under duress.
He was 0-for-10 with three sacks when under duress, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“If he’s not doing the keeps, right now people are going to continue to do it," Rivera said of ganging up on McCaffrey.
Newton needs help. Left tackle Daryl Williams had a nightmarish performance, unable to handle Barrett without help. He gave up three sacks, including consecutive sacks to stall a key drive.
Rivera said Williams will continue to protect Newton’s blind side this week even though second-round pick Greg Little should be ready for his first game after being sidelined with a concussion.
Run blocking on the left needs improvement, too. McCaffrey had two rushing attempts for minus-2 yards going wide left, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He had 4 yards on three rushes running between Williams and left guard Greg Van Roten.
He rushed for 21 yards on seven carries to the right outside Moton and had 14 yards on four carries behind Moton and right guard Trai Turner.
“The biggest problem is really not winning the one-on-one matchups we had," Rivera said.
Still, much falls on Newton.
He has to either become much more efficient passing or return as a threat in the running game. The latter happened in 2013, when the Panthers went from 0-2 and 1-3 to a 12-4 record and NFC South champions.
Newton was sacked seven times in the first two games that season and 15 times during the first four. He was sacked only seven times over the next four games after the 1-3 start, in part because then-offensive coordinator Mike Shula turned his quarterback loose in the running game.
Newton rushed nine times for 43 yards in the first two games and the Panthers averaged 15 points. In the first three games after the 1-3 start, his rush attempts jumped to nine, 10 and 11 and the offense went on a tear with four straight games of 30-plus points.
It’s hard to imagine offensive coordinator Norv Turner turning Newton loose that much, but Newton understands his importance. That’s why he said “all fingers are just pointing back to me, specifically on offense."
“The optimistic point is we have a lot of veteran leadership in the room," said Newton, who has lost eight straight games as the starter. “You don’t hear the whispers. Guys want to help, you know what I’m saying? That is a start for us.
“We’ll take this little period off, come back and find ways to win football games."