CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole breathed a deep sigh.
“I can’t wait to see the film to see what happened,” he said after Sunday night’s 37-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a prime-time telecast.
The easy answer to what happened? Nothing good.
A defense that had given up only 172 yards rushing in the first two games combined gave up 264, and for the first time since 2001 against the St. Louis Rams allowed two backs to rush for more than 100 yards in the same game.
According to ESPN Stats & Information data, the Panthers also gave up two runs of more than 50 yards in the same game for the first time since 2001.
An offense that prides itself on being able to run managed a mere 42 yards against a defense that had allowed an average of 170 yards rushing in two games.
A quarterback that prides himself on being able to avoid pressure and give the running game a boost was held to a career-low two rush attempts for 7 yards. Cam Newton also was sacked three times and hit at least six more.
It was a complete meltdown for the Panthers (2-1), who played nearly flawlessly in all phases in the first two games.
From head coach Ron Rivera to Newton, they insisted it wasn’t from a lack of focus during a week that was interrupted on Wednesday with defensive end Greg Hardy going on the commissioner’s exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved.
“We don’t want anyone to feel pity for us being that we went through something that any other team didn’t,” Newton said.
That’s good, since Hardy plays one position and the Panthers had breakdowns at almost every one.
Newton said the Panthers looked “out of sync.”
No kidding. The defense that had allowed more than 20 points only once in the past 14 games — at New Orleans last season, a 31-13 loss also on a Sunday night — was practically unrecognizable.
Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount conjured up memories of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Bell rushed 21 times for 147 yards, including an 81-yarder when the Panthers had Pittsburgh in a second-and-22 situation from their own 8 and trailed only 16-6.
Blount had 118 yards on 10 carries, including a 50-yarder.
Nobody had the answers for how that happened any more than they had answers for why the offensive line couldn’t move what, until Sunday, was one of the worst defensive fronts in the league.
Players used phrases such as inconsistent. Lack of communication. Poor timing.
Whatever it was, this film is being passed around the league as the best way to beat a team that CBS analyst Boomer Esiason said earlier in the day was the best team in the NFL at that moment.
Not at this moment.
The Steelers exposed the offensive line, the biggest weakness for Carolina heading into the season, like no other team thus far. But the defensive front seven has been solid, even without Hardy.
Perhaps the best thing the Panthers can do is not watch this film. They didn’t do enough good things to look at a second time, and watching the bad things again might cause nightmares.
Even Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, looked average at times against Pittsburgh’s quick screens and runs up the middle.
To make matters worse, the Panthers next face a Baltimore (2-1) team that beat the Steelers 26-6 last week and have a certain wide receiver that remains angry the Panthers released him in March.
Yes, somewhere Steve Smith is drooling for this opportunity.
The only positive is Carolina is 2-1 instead of 1-2 as it was a year ago en route to starting 1-3.
“It’s a long year,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We know better than anybody. We have to get back and fix our mistakes first before we worry about who we’re going to play, and go from there.”