Brian Blanco / Associated Press
Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 | 2 a.m.
A complete lack of suspense spread through Bank of America Stadium when the Carolina Panthers lined up for a decisive fourth-and-1 from midfield late Sunday afternoon against the Las Vegas Raiders. And it wasn’t just because the game was being played without fans.
None of the admittedly few people in attendance apart from the Raiders’ sideline could have possibly thought the Panthers would come up short after watching the first 58 minutes of the game. Carolina had mostly done as it pleased against Las Vegas, and there was no reason to believe it was suddenly going to change with the game on the line.
“Very sloppy performance on the defense’s part,” Raiders safety Johnathan Abram said. “We’ve got to go out and execute a lot more than we did.”
In the end, everyone was wrong on the fourth down, of course. The Raiders did indeed stuff an, um, baffling fullback-dive call to all-but-ice a 34-30 victory over the Panthers and start their new life in Las Vegas with a victory.
It was a big moment, one where the Raiders earned their ensuing celebration and post-game optimism. But the euphoria of victory shouldn’t disguise the larger concern — The Raiders’ made-over defense looked as ugly as ever.
There’s a lot they’re going to need to brush up on over the next seven days ahead of next week’s Allegiant Stadium-opening Monday Night Football showdown against the New Orleans Saints.
The Panthers likely have one of the lesser offenses in the NFL. They certainly don’t have an offense that should rack up 388 yards and 6 yards per play in their first game under a new coach and offensive coordinator after a shortened offseason and no preseason games.
In the Raiders’ defense, it’s just one game. A lot of NFL teams are said to make their biggest leap from week 1 to week 2.
Las Vegas better hope so. Missed tackles, blown coverages and a non-existent pass rush — hallmarks of the Panthers’ win — aren’t going to work next week against the Saints.
They’re probably not going to work in two weeks at the Patriots. They’re surely not going to work in a pair of games against the rival, Super Bowl defending champion Kansas City Chiefs.
“The defense did not play the way we felt we needed to play,” defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “At the end of the day, when the game is on the line, you’ve got to block all of that out, line up and go.”
It took a team effort to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and thwart the aforementioned fourth-down play, but it was poetic that Ferrell was the one who ended up making the tackle on Carolina fullback Alex Armah. Ferrell, last year’s No. 4 overall pick out of Clemson, had been under fire for a mediocre rookie season and, despite putting on weight and promising better this year, didn’t produce for most of the game against the Panthers.
He was swallowed up by the Panthers’ offensive line, and he wasn’t the only one. Fellow second-year edge rusher Maxx Crosby didn’t fare much better.
The sophomore duo may not have provided much help to their teammates in pass coverage, but the defensive backs were making problems of their own. The Panthers routinely picked on rookie cornerback Damon Arnette, including on a 75-yard touchdown pass from Teddy Bridgewater to Robby Anderson, and inconsistent nickelback Lamarcus Joyner, who also dropped what looked like a sure first-half interception in the red zone.
The Raiders’ linebackers might have been their best defensive unit, but that’s not saying much, and the position group also regressed once it lost Nick Kwiatkoski to an injured pectoral in the third quarter. Nicholas Morrow committed a blatant pass-interference on the first of two fourth-quarter scoring drives Carolina used to capture a late lead.
Last year’s weakness for defending against backs running routes out of the backfield reappeared when Morrow and recent trade acquisition Raekwon McMillan shared the field, after Kwiatkoski’s exit.
“We didn’t know what they were going to run,” Abram said of the Panthers. “This is a first-time offense. It was really discombobulated how we had to watch film with this new OC and everything but we did a good job. This game wasn’t about the Carolina Panthers, it was about the Las Vegas Raiders.”
The unfamiliarity with the Panthers is a valid excuse, but one that doesn’t have any shelf life going forward. The Raiders must show some defensive progress or else they’re destined to post a losing record for the ninth time in 10 seasons.
At least they seem to realize it. Credit to Abram and Ferrell, the defensive representatives of postgame news conference, for not ignoring the issues because of one big play and admitting improvement is critical.
For the Raiders’ sake, it needs to come quickly. It needs to become before the Saints arrive in Las Vegas next weekend.
“As a rush group, there was a lot of things we, because of everything that’s happened in the last few months, weren’t accustomed to,” Ferrell said. “But there’s no excuses. We really just have to learn to know our rushing lanes and how to get off our blocks and not rushing in the middle of people, knowing who has the one-on-one and winning the one-on-one.”