CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers have boasted the last few weeks about finding an identity on offense by playing smash-mouth football.
That identity was stolen on Sunday by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The run-happy Panthers, who racked up 223 yards on the ground in a 30-24 win at Seattle last week, were held to 21 yards rushing on 16 carries on Sunday — the fifth-lowest total in franchise history — in a 24-16 loss to the Steelers.
D'Onta Foreman, who has carried the load in the running game, was limited to 9 yards on 10 carries.
With no running game to lean on, Carolina’s play-action passing game was nullified and Sam Darnold only found the end zone once while being sacked four times.
The No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft made some nice throws at times, including going 6 of 7 for 92 yards on Carolina's lone touchdown drive, which culminated in a 5-yard toss to wide receiver D.J. Moore.
But the positive plays were few and far between.
The Panthers converted 4 of 11 third downs and settled for three field goals in the second half.
“On the offensive side of the ball, we couldn’t create any momentum,” Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks said. “Didn’t establish the run game at all. We’ve got to do a much better job in our protection and giving Sam an opportunity to be able to go through his progressions to get down the field.”
When the Steelers opened the second half with a 21-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that took 11:43 off the clock, the Panthers were down 21-7 — a tough spot for a run-first team.
Given their roster construction and instability at quarterback, the Panthers aren't equipped to put up points in a hurry by passing.
“That was an emphasis (stopping the run) because we knew the running game that they had," Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith said. “The past couple of weeks we weren’t ourselves. That starts with a great week of practice, honestly one of our best weeks of practice in a awhile. So that’s where it started and set the tone for the game on the first drive.”
Wilks gave no reassurances that Darnold, who won his first two starts for Carolina, would start Saturday's home finale against the Detroit Lions. He said after the game that everyone will be evaluated.
P.J. Walker is the other option at quarterback.
When the Panthers went to formations using an extra offensive lineman, the Steelers countered by bringing in DeMarvin Leal as an additional defensive lineman. They also brought a safety into the box, daring Carolina to beat them through the air.
“They did a good job of stopping our run game and getting pressure,” Darnold said.
Darnold expects teams will follow the Steelers' plan to stop the run, but he insists Carolina can make adjustments.
“We are a better team than what we showed today,” Darnold said. “Obviously, we have a short week, we have a game on Saturday. We have to watch the tape tomorrow, and then we’ll be watching some film of the guys we got. It was a tough one today and a lot to learn from but at the same time we have a short week, so we have to flush it quick.”
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