Carolina Panthers head coach Frank Reich was bullish on his offensive line despite his team’s 33-10 loss on Sunday — going so far as to say the unit “dominated at the line of scrimmage” and that “there’s just no two ways about it” and that it “showed a lot of good stuff against a very good team.”
His positivity flowed into Monday morning, too, after watching the game tape.
“We came out in some 12 personnel, and I thought we did a good job in that, running both inside zone and outside zone,” Reich said. “Had a few other different scheme runs in there that I thought the guys executed well. I thought the backs ran hard behind the pads. I thought the tight ends blocked well, both of them, particularly Tommy (Tremble) was very aggressive. And it was good to have Ian (Thomas) back in there.
“So that run game effectiveness is something we’ll look to build on.”
Forgive Panthers fans if those remarks fell on deaf ears.
For as good as the Panthers ran the ball — particularly early on Sunday, when Chuba Hubbard spent the first two series running like a healthy Nick Chubb — the offensive line found itself at the center of the team’s scoring struggles in Week 11. The same unit that paved 110 yards of rushing also gave up seven sacks for 46 yards and six tackles for loss. Rookie quarterback Bryce Young was running for his life in the backfield for most of the fourth quarter, which included a drive that ended with three consecutive sacks.
Even Panthers legend and Fox Sports analyst, Greg Olsen, noticed the troubles in real-time: “I just don’t know how fair an evaluation anyone can make until they are able to protect him,” he said of Young on the air Sunday. “I’m not sure how many quarterbacks can operate in that environment.”
Young certainly couldn’t. The No. 1 overall pick struggled again, completing 16 of 29 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown and throwing the third pick-6 of his career. Reich fielded questions postgame about Young’s mental confidence and his physical health afterward because of how much the quarterback was hit.
“We had one series where we had three sacks in a row,” Reich recalled Monday. “There was 12 minutes to go in the game. 30-10. And there was still just enough time in the game where I felt like I had to be aggressive, see if we could get the ball down the field. It was unfortunate that we had three consecutive sacks in those three plays.
“But we need as a group, as players and coaches, do better.”
That last line — “we, as a group, need to do better” — is a familiar refrain for this team.
It was a loud and optimistic offseason for this offensive line. The Panthers brought back all their starters who thrived in the downhill running scheme at the end of 2022, and they added another rookie, Chandler Zavala, who was a college teammate of Ickey Ekwonu and who looked poised to perform well from the jump.
The good vibes shifted quickly, though. It started in the first preseason game against the New York Jets, when Young was so much in so few series that it prompted an early “this is not acceptable” postgame meeting. There has been a spiral of play since. The run game has struggled mightily all season — and Young has suffered 36 sacks in the nine contests he’s played.
It’s true Young has taken accountability for holding onto the ball too long at times. It’s true, too, that injuries have plagued performance. Austin Corbett, the unit’s leader, missed the first seven games recovering from an ACL tear, and Zavala missed a bunch of time after a scary injury in Detroit.
But whatever has happened, at whatever point in the season, the unit has found itself at the center of Carolina’s issues.
So what will change? Personnel could’ve and didn’t, with all five starters playing 100% of snaps on Sunday, a product of mid-game circumstance, Reich told reporters Monday.
Perhaps a better question: What should change?
To that, Reich was positive again Monday, saying that he “loved our group” and that the team “made good progress in the run game” and that “we just need to translate that into pass protection.”
“I believe in our guys,” Reich said, once again. “Players and coaches.”