On Sunday night in Chicago, an exasperated Ron Rivera said that as he watched film of the Carolina Panthers’ loss to the Bears, he wanted to especially focus on what went wrong whenever his offense made it inside the opposing 40-yard line.
Two turnovers that were returned for touchdowns were obviously the glaring issue here, and one that decided Sunday’s 17-3 loss.
But the Panthers’ problems in consistently moving the ball downfield are a little deeper than those two turnovers.
While it’s not the only fix needed for the offense, something that would have helped Carolina was the presence of someone they depend heavily on, not only when getting past midfield, but in the crucial plays that happen inside the 40-yard line: tight end Greg Olsen.
Olsen is eligible to return to practice next week after a broken foot in Week 2 landed him on injured reserve for six weeks. He can play as early as Nov. 26 against the Jets.
The Panthers aren’t just missing his production (Olsen has been one of quarterback Cam Newton’s favorite targets for the past three years, racking up an NFL-record 1,000-plus yards per season for three consecutive seasons). Olsen is a great blocker and has a knack for freeing up other playmakers as a threat in the middle of the field, but that’s certainly far from everything he brings.
“His ability to run routes and impact the game or impact the defense,” said Rivera on Monday. “You miss some of the things he’s capable of. The calming effect he brings to the huddle, the calming effect he brings at the line of scrimmage. His ability to help others. He’s a pretty special guy for us, and we miss that.”
They’re also missing his situational dependability.
In 2016, Olsen had 80 catches on 129 targets for 1,079 yards and three touchdowns.
Forty-five of those targets (30 catches) were on first-and-10 (with 51 total targets on first down), where Olsen averaged 15.9 yards per catch and 8.32 yards per target. This means that Olsen is a dependable option when trying to avoid the long second and third downs that have irked Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula in recent weeks.
Newton also targeted Olsen 37 times (for 19 catches) on third down in 2016. Olsen averaged 10.6 yards per catch, 5.5 yards per target and scored two of his touchdowns in this situation.
When trying to get past midfield (from the Panthers’ 21-yard line), Olsen was targeted 63 times with 38 catches and 564 yards, averaging 14.8 yards per catch and 9 yards per target.
He also had 26 first downs in that scenario.
When moving from the opposing 49-yard line to the red zone, Olsen was also incredibly important.
He was targeted 37 times with 23 catches for 306 yards, averaging 13.3 yards per catch, 8.3 yards per target and15 first downs.
In fact, Olsen’s 41 first downs in just those two situations accounted for 26.9 percent of passing first-down conversions when the Panthers moved the ball from their 21-yard line to the opposing red zone.
Having Olsen back will also help more clearly define the roles of newcomers, which is something Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula say has been inconsistent as they have tried to both bring these players up to speed and continue to evolve their offense.
An example of this is Carolina’s attempt to find a niche for second-round draft pick Curtis Samuel, who missed most of training camp and the preseason to injury. Samuel was drafted to be both a vertical and underneath threat for Carolina after the team lost Ted Ginn Jr. in free agency, but the Panthers have yet to get Samuel into a rhythm on either type of route.
But Rivera and Shula agree that having a presence such as Olsen’s on the field helps to add specificity to the roles of Samuel and many more players, which in turn helps with some of the offensive cohesion Carolina has at times lacked.
“What it does is it takes some of the pressure off of (tight end) Ed Dickson, who is really splitting roles,” said Rivera. “It takes a little bit of pressure off of the receivers, because again, now there’s your through-the-middle-of-the-defense threat, and it helps the quarterback tremendously.”