Panthers’ second-half slumps reveal flaw facing the offense

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The Carolina Panthers, 3-2 heading into their Week 6 matchup with the Minnesota Vikings, are on a two-game losing streak.

Last week’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was one they wish they could have back. The Panthers led 15-6 at halftime before losing 21-18. The loss revealed a host of problems, from Sam Darnold’s bad decision-making to the offensive line’s struggles to protect him.

That was theme in this week’s “Ask JMA Mailbag” for which we fielded questions from readers.

Let’s get to those questions:

@young_thuggha asks — Why are the Panthers so slow on offense in the third quarter? (5 total offensive TDs in Q3 in 2020, 1 TD so far in 2021)

JMA says: I think that’s the question we’d all like the answer to, including the Panthers. Otherwise, they’d have it fixed.

But in the third quarter of last week’s game, Carolina went away from what was working: running the football. In 11 plays during the third quarter, and the Panthers ran the ball three times.

Two big runs — an 8-yard run, and an 11-yard run by Chuba Hubbard — were called back because of holding penalties. Sam Darnold also threw an interception in the third quarter.

What you’re seeing is that the Panthers haven’t made the necessary adjustments in the second half to win games. Their opponents have.

After last week’s game, Philly cornerback Steven Nelson said he noticed that wide receiver Robby Anderson had been lined up the exact same way all game. So he sat on Anderson’s comeback route and picked off Darnold on the Panthers’ final drive.

Two weeks ago, Carolina defensive coordinator Phil Snow said the Cowboys ran some things in Week 4 that the Panthers hadn’t seen or prepared for.

It was an honest answer, but it was also revealing. The Panthers have been out-coached in the second half of their most recent two games.

@Meowmixpodcast — Has Joe Brady really earned the “young genius” moniker he’s been given since joining the Panthers? Is there a fun or high-powered version of this offense he’s holding back for some reason? If so, will he unleash it soon?

JMA says: All great questions. I think what Brady did with LSU was great in helping them win that national championship. He earned that. Joe Burrow and the LSU offense had a career year.

But if you look at what the Panthers have done in two years under Brady, their offense has been mediocre.

For me to call an offensive coordinator a genius at this level, the team should be in the top five in offensive categories every year. And the Panthers haven’t done that.

Having said all of that, Carolina hasn’t had Christian McCaffrey in many of those games. The star running back has finished only four games in the past two years.

And their offensive line has been poor. I think what Matt Rhule said Monday was interesting.

“I think Joe (Brady) will be the first to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to stretch the field a little bit more and try to take some more shots,’ ” Rhule said. “It’s hard to take shots when you don’t trust the timing of your protections.”

In other words, poor offensive line play has begun to limit the playbook.

@mlbriggs24 asks — With the porous OL play, what are the chances the Panthers are able to make a trade to improve? This seems to be the major piece holding them back from being a serious playoff contender.

JMA says: That’s hard to say. The Panthers are looking, but other teams are as well — and that’s what makes it difficult.

We asked general manager Scott Fitterer this directly after the Panthers made the trade for Stephon Gilmore. Here’s what he said: “Yeah, I think that’s something you’re always looking at. I mean, it’s not like there are offensive linemen available. I think every team’s in the same situation we are. … There’s just not a lot of offensive linemen on the market right now. No one’s letting them out (the door) — even their backups.”

So they’re trying. They’re just not having too much success finding one.

@sportsguyshow asks — I am curious what your take is on why Phil (Snow) decided that it was a very smart idea with 37 seconds left before halftime to play a very soft coverage, allow the Eagles easily to drive down the field and kick a FG before halftime.

JMA says: I don’t know. That’s something I’d have to ask Phil Snow on Thursday when we talk to him.

My only guess is that they didn’t want to get beat deep. Those three points played a factor in them losing, but it wasn’t that big of a deal compared to the interceptions and the blocked punt.

Brian Lander asks — Any McCaffrey update on the week? And do the Panthers plan on limiting his workload when he gets back?

JMA says: The expectation is that McCaffrey should be available this week. Rhule said on Monday that he was “hopeful” McCaffrey would play against Minnesota.

McCaffrey practiced in a limited capacity last week and was a game-time decision against the Eagles. So he was close, even last week.

McCaffrey also said he felt he could play. It’s just a matter of whether the doctors give the OK. I think he’ll play against the Vikings, barring any setbacks.

Whether they’ll limit his workload would depend on how healthy he is. I do think Chuba Hubbard has earned the right to get more carries and spell McCaffrey more often.

Hubbard had 101 yards on 24 carries against the Eagles. He was the first Panthers player to rush for 100 yards since McCaffrey did it in Week 10 of the 2019 season.

“Chuba is playing well, and I think he’ll be a tremendous compliment whenever Christian is back with us,” Rhule said.

Rob Cummings asks — Shouldn’t Chase Blackburn be on the hot seat? Special teams has not performed in even the top 2/3 of the league for the past 4 years. Any rumblings of a change forthcoming?

JMA says: I haven’t heard any rumblings about his job status, but I do think it’s fair to wonder whether he will return next season.

The kicking situation, prior to Zane Gonzalez, had been a disaster. Punter Joe Charlton hasn’t played well this season. And the Panthers’ special teams has also given up some big returns, and allowed the block last Sunday.

Those things cannot happen.