Panthers struggles continue in blowout loss at Indianapolis

Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is tackled by the Colts’ Clayton Geathers (26) and Anthony Walker (50) during Indianapolis’ 38-6 win Sunday. (Michael Conroy / AP Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS — Carolina Panthers interim coach Perry Fewell keeps trying to fix problems.

They’re just seem to be getting worse.

On Sunday, the Panthers mustered only two field goals, gave up more than 200 yards rushing and endured their second-worst loss of the season — and that wasn’t even the worst part. Carolina’s punt coverage unit got burned for three long returns and two touchdowns in an embarrassing 38-6 blowout at Indianapolis.

“We’re all disappointed in our product,” Fewell said. “Our product doesn’t look like that through the week. I have to do a better job of focusing better on game day.”

That’s been a common refrain since the Panthers (5-10) fell from playoff hopefuls in October to postseason outsiders.

Seven straight losses will do that to a team.

But so far nothing Fewell has tried since taking over three weeks ago has worked.

After benching turnover-prone Kyle Allen in favor of quarterback Will Grier, the rookie responded Sunday by going 27 of 44 with 224 yards and three interceptions. He was sacked five times and finished a rating of 46.0.

Yes, losing receiver DJ Moore in the first quarter to the concussion protocol hurt though Christian McCaffrey was more than a capable fill-in. He caught 15 passes for 119 yards, leaving him 67 yards short of becoming the third player in league history to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.

And the Panthers defense got run over again — allowing 218 yards to the Colts, or 6.8 yards per attempt, after starting the day with the worst per-carry average in the NFL (5.19).

The coverage unit only managed to tackle Nyheim Hines once, after a 40-yard return just four plays into the game. Eight plays after that, Jacoby Brissett’s 1-yard plunge put Carolina in a 7-0 hole.

Less than two minutes later, Hines scored on an 84-yard return celebrating his feat with a jog through the tunnel in celebration mode. He added another touchdown midway through the fourth quarter when he somehow found a lane amid a group of defenders, came out on the other end and sprinted 71 yards to become the first NFL player to return two punts for scores in the same game since 2012.

Hines finished with 195 yards on his three returns, the most by anyone in the league in 15 years and an average of 65.0 yards.

“There was one thing around here that was always true regardless of effort. There were 16 games. Those 16 games were going to be respectable,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “They were going to be played. Obviously, that’s not been the case this year. It’s a tough way to finish.”

Fewell struggled for the words to describe what went wrong, repeatedly acknowledging he wanted to watch the game tape first.

Olsen did not.

“Players are under-performing,” Olsen said. “I think, right now, it’s a very collective failure. Our fans deserve better. A lot of guys in this locker room deserve better. The coaches that have been here deserve better.”

But the ugliest component of this loss needed no second look.

Defensive tackle Vernon Butler was tossed out early in the third quarter after being called for unnecessary roughness. A booth review showed him throwing a punch at the helmet of Colts tight end Jack Doyle, which resulted in the ejection.

“I thought he should have been ejected for the act he committed,” Fewell said. “It’s not to our standard and we will talk as an organization about that.”

Butler only compounded the problem when he made an obscene gesture at the crowd while he was being escorted to the locker room, an action that will likely will result in additional action from the league office.

“I shouldn’t be hitting anyone in the first place. It’s not me, it’s not my character,” Butler said before explaining his reaction to the crowd. “Obviously they said something that caused me to do it. The fans are always talking. I’m sorry I did it.”

The good news is only one more game remains.

The bad news: Carolina faces high-scoring NFC South champion New Orleans next week, as Fewell again searches for answers.

“We have a pattern that we have set for ourselves, it’s a pattern we need to break,” Fewell said. “We were playing good defense — run defense — at a certain point and then the dam opened up.”