When Panthers protect Teddy Bridgewater, they're a different team

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It began on the second play of Sunday’s 23-16 loss to the Chicago Bears when Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was sacked for the first time since Week 3. It ended on Bridgewater’s final throw when under duress he tossed his second interception.

For the Panthers (3-3) to have any hope of remaining relevant in the NFC South, they must alleviate the pressure that defenses are putting on Bridgewater.

The Bears pressured Bridgewater on 13 of 40 dropbacks and sacked him four times Sunday. In Week 2, Tampa Bay pressured him 15 times and sacked him five times.

Both were losses.

The Bears entered the game ranked 20th in the NFL in pass rush efficiency at 40%. Carolina’s next three opponents -- New Orleans, Atlanta and Kansas City -- rank 17th, 13th and fifth.

After that comes division-leading Tampa Bay (4-2), which entered Sunday ranked first at 58%.

“When you’re getting hit the entire game, you’re trying to get the ball out and do things with timing, that stuff affects you," left tackle Russell Okung said. “We just can’t get him hit."

Bridgewater, not surprisingly, wouldn’t pin the blame on his line or the playcalling, which often left him in an empty backfield with minimum protection. He said it simply was “we didn’t execute well" and that ultimately it “comes down to execution."

What’s clear is when Bridgewater is protected, he and the offense are efficient and potentially explosive. He was pressured on only 18% of his dropbacks during the three-game winning streak, compared to 33% by the Bears.

Pressure has a wear-and-tear effect that makes even the simplest of throws go awry. Take Bridgewater’s fourth-and-2 pass to wide receiver DJ Moore with about two minutes left from the Chicago 38. Moore was wide open at around the 20 with clear sailing to the end zone, but the ball was just off enough that he had to attempt a spectacular catch.

“That’s a play that we have to make all around," Carolina coach Matt Rhule said. “The last interception, obviously, that is unfortunate. Can’t happen. I think from the very beginning, credit to Chicago, we were under duress.

“Teddy ran the ball more than I’ve seen him run the ball."

Bridgewater began the day ranked first in the NFL in completion percentage (73.4) because his line kept him clean. He ran only 15 times in the first five games because he didn’t have to.

He had a 55.2 completion percentage against the Bears and ran eight times because the pass rush was on him so fast.

“We were knocked off course from the opening kickoff and it was like we never really got back on track," Bridgewater said of a penalty that forced the Panthers to start the game from their own 10.

After a sack on the second play, Bridgewater threw his first interception since a Week 4 win against Arizona. It snowballed from there, and even then the Panthers had a chance at the end.

“Like I told some of the guys in the locker room, this game can humble you, so I think a game like today is good for us," Bridgewater said. “Never want to experience what happened today again."