CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)Panthers coach Frank Reich raved about the talent in the team’s tight ends room during training camp.
That makes it all the more perplexing that Carolina’s tight ends have been virtually non-existent with the team off to a disappointing 0-4 start, including a 21-13 loss on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
Carolina’s four tight ends have combined for just 13 catches for 114 yards and one touchdown through the first four games of the season. They had one catch for 7 yards on Sunday.
Given that a tight end can be a best friend as a checkdown option in an offensive led by a young quarterback such as Bryce Young, the Panthers could benefit from altering their offensive game plan to include them more moving forward.
Hayden Hurst has been the biggest disappointment of the bunch.
Hurst, who received a three-year, $21.7 million contract this past offseason as a free agent, had five catches for the 41 yards and a touchdown in Carolina’s season opener against the Atlanta Falcons, but has been quiet since with just five receptions for 38 yards the past three games. He was expected to be a major red zone target.
Tommy Tremble, Ian Thomas and Gio Ricci each have one catch this season.
The inability of Hurst and crew to get open and the lack of plays going their way is one of the reasons Young has been sacked 11 times in three starts as the safety valve option hasn’t been there.
For a group that received big praise this summer, that isn’t up to par.
Eddy Pineiro continues to be solid for the Panthers. He added two more field goals on Sunday, including a 56-yarder at the end of the first half. Pineiro is 8 of 9 on field-goal attempts with his only miss coming from 55 yards. “Eddy Money,” as some teammates are calling him, has made 27 of his past 28 field-goal attempts going back to last season.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
While No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud is thriving with the Houston Texans, Young is struggling in Carolina. Stroud has six touchdown passes and no interceptions and a QB rating of 98. Young has two touchdowns and two interceptions for a QB rating of 66.6. It’s unclear if the Panthers have some buyer’s regret this early in his career, but there is a growing faction of Carolina fans pushing for veteran Andy Dalton to start because they feel he gives the team the best chance to win right now. Dalton threw for 361 yards and two TDs in a 37-27 Week 3 loss vs. Seattle with Young out because of an ankle injury.
Adam Thielen continues to prove that he still has it at age 33. The two-time Pro Bowl selection leads the Panthers with 27 catches for 287 yards and two touchdowns through four games. Thielen fought through an ankle injury on Sunday and caught seven passes for 76 yards against his former team and was open for an easy touchdown after a double move on Carolina’s final drive. Thielen clearly needs help from his fellow wide receivers and isn’t getting it.
After the game, Reich praised Thielen for his toughness.
“I think he rolled up his ankle,” Reich said. “What a competitor that guy is. Man, what a competitor. I mean that guy, I have so much respect for that guy. He is the best.”
Carolina’s offensive line continues to struggle. They allowed five sacks – all in the second half – while failing to open running lanes. Miles Sanders was held to 19 yards rushing on 13 attempts. Chuba Hubbard was the top rusher with 41 yards on 14 carries, and as a team the Panthers were held to 2.7 yards per carry. The Panthers had six different rushes that went for no gain or negative yardage.
The good news is veteran guard Austin Corbett is eligible to return from injured reserve this week.
However, it could be some time before Corbett sees game action. He tore his ACL in the final game of the 2022 season and hasn’t played or practiced since.
Carolina’s defense grew even thinner on Sunday. Starting cornerback Donte Jackson went down with a shoulder injury in the first half, leaving the Panthers without three of their four starting defensive backs.
Cornerback Jaycee Horn (hamstring) is on injured reserve and safety Xavier Woods missed the game because of a hamstring injury. It’s little surprise that Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson took advantage, catching six passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Another Jefferson TD catch was called back on a holding penalty by Josh Oliver.
Previously, the Panthers also lost linebacker Shaq Thompson to a season-ending broken leg.
1 of 164 – Number of teams that have started the season 0-4 and went on to reach the playoffs in the Super Bowl era. The only team to do it was the 1992 Chargers, so the Panthers have their back up against the wall.
Things won’t get any easier on Sunday as the Panthers travel to face the Detroit Lions.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl