Carolina players say the Panthers don't have a third-down problem, and they're right.
The offense's problems often begin on the first two plays of the drive.
The results are too many third-and-long situations for a young offense led by a rookie quarterback who is exposed to a more aggressive pass rush and helmet-banging hits when the defense knows what's coming.
"Third-and-long in this league, it's a hard down. That's a defensive coordinator's dream is third-and-long," Panthers tight end Jeff King said. "You can get any gamut of defenses, any gamut of blitzes."
The Panthers (0-4) rank 24th in the NFL in third-down efficiency, converting 33.9 percent of their chances. The league average is a 38.7 success rate on third down. Chicago (3-1), the Panthers' opponent this week, is last in the NFL at 21.3 percent.
A breakdown of Carolina's third-down plays this season affirms King's point: When the Panthers face a manageable distance on third down, they do OK.
The Panthers have converted 53.3 percent of their third-down plays when they needed 3 yards or less. Their success rate drops to 26.9 percent when facing third-and-7 or longer.
"You've got to gain some yards on first and second down to get it third-and-manageable. We've got to do better on all downs," King said. "I know third down is going to be the issue with the media. But you've got to convert on first and second down, just as well as you do on third."
The Panthers had their best third-down showing against the New York Giants in Week 1, converting 8 of 17 chances (47 percent). Leading receiver Steve Smith had three catches against the Giants that moved the chains.
Smith converted another third-down play with an 8-yard catch in the first quarter against Tampa Bay the following week. But Smith has not had a third-down reception since, as defensive backs have doubled up on him and forced the Panthers' young receivers to make plays.
It has proven to be a sound strategy.
Rookie receivers David Gettis and Brandon LaFell have been the target on 10 third-down throws and have just one catch between them - LaFell's 44-yard grab on third-and-1 near the end of the Cincinnati game. Tight end Dante Rosario has been the Panthers' most productive third-down receiver with six catches, including four since Jimmy Clausen replaced Matt Moore at quarterback. Rosario ranks among the NFL leaders in third-down receptions; tailback Mike Goodson is not far behind with five.
More than anything, those statistics speak to the Panthers' lack of a downfield passing attack. Carolina has gone 0-for-11 in third-and-long situations the past two weeks, against Cincinnati and New Orleans.
Four times against the Saints, Clausen came to the line needing 10 yards or more to get to the first-down marker.
"First off, we don't want to put ourselves in those situations," Clausen said. "We just have to convert. Keep practicing third down. Keep protecting up front like those guys are doing. ... Just got to make plays down the field."
That task could be even more challenging this week if Smith doesn't play. The team's leading receiver sprained his left ankle in the third quarter against the Saints, and had his foot in a protective boot earlier this week.
Smith believes the third-down issues are symptomatic of the team's overall offensive problems.
The Panthers enter Sunday's game versus the Bears as the NFL's lowest-scoring team (11.5 points a game) and near the bottom in passing yardage and total offense. The 16-14 loss to the Saints was the first time the Panthers scored more than one touchdown in a game.
"We haven't scored a lot of points. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins. And four times now we have not been that team," Smith said. "So obviously, our third-down conversion rate is very low."
The Panthers' inability to sustain drives has kept their defense on the field longer. Carolina's average time of possession is 24:57. Only Buffalo, also 0-4, has a worse time of possession (24:53).
Only twice in John Fox's previous eight seasons has Carolina finished with a lower third-down percentage than the Panthers' current 33.9 percentage. The 2006 team, which went 8-8, was 31.1 percent on third downs, while the Panthers were 28.6 on third downs in 2002 in Fox's first season.
"We've just got to convert," Gettis said. "We've got to do a better job of getting to the sticks and making more plays down the stretch. I think that's all it really comes down to is making more plays."
It sounds simple. But the Panthers have made it more difficult with what they've done on first and second down.