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Patriots-Panthers: Observations in the Patriots’ 33-30 home loss

Some immediate takeaways after the game.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots fell to 2-2 following their loss to the Panthers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

After finding themselves trailing by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady went to work. He swiftly marched the offense down the field to tie the game late with a red zone strike to Danny Amendola. But with plenty of time remaining on the clock, Cam Newton led Carolina on a penalty-aided drive that ended with a Graham Gano 48-yard game-winning field goal.

Here are a few of the immediate takeaways from the contest.

The defensive panic button has officially been pressed

Any sounding of the annual alarm indicating the Patriots’ defensive ineptitude prior to Sunday’s game should have promptly been considered premature. But, the Patriots media and fan base is now in full blown nuclear meltdown mode given the struggles of the Carolina offense in the three games leading into Sunday’s affair, and their subsequent success against Matt Patricia’s group all afternoon.

There is no way to sugarcoat the struggles of the secondary — widely considered the strength of the defensive unit heading into the 2017 season. The fact that no one was able to keep Devin Funchess in check on Sunday speaks volumes. He torched Eric Rowe on his first touchdown, and promptly took Malcolm Butler to task for a majority of the second half.

Surely there can be no Patriots defender who is looking forward to short practice week than Stephon Gilmore. His rough afternoon started with a miscommunication with safety Devin McCourty, directly leading to a walk-in touchdown on a screen pass to Fozzy Whitaker. He then found himself riding the pine as the team came out of the locker room in the second half, but was immediately pressed back into service when Eric Rowe went down with an injury. Kelvin Benjamin, Gilmore’s primary assignment, finished the game with four grabs for 104 yard. And say what you will of the calls themselves, Patriots fans won’t soon forget his two massive penalties — one that nullified a Deatrich Wise third-down sack to get the unit off the field on Carolina’s final drive.

Superman made an appearance in Foxborough

If anyone was wondering if they’d ever see Cam Newton return to his 2015 MVP form again, they witnessed it on Sunday afternoon.

With the exception of an ill-advise jump ball resulting in a first-quarter interception by Malcolm Butler, Newton was flawless. He consistently drove the ball downfield with accuracy, and was nearly perfect on his touch passes underneath. His final stat line read: 22/29, 316 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT.

The seventh-year former first overall selection also added 8 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown on the ground, including a few key third-down scampers to extend the Panthers’ final touchdown drive to put them up multiple scores late.

Newton was also an equal opportunity distributor with 12 of his completions going to wideouts, seven to running backs, and three to tight end Ed Dickson.

The struggles continue for the offensive line

In what is becoming perhaps the most disturbing trend throughout the team’s 2-2 start, Tom Brady was sacked three more times on Sunday, including two by 1,000-year-old veteran Julius Peppers. Kawann short added the third. The Panthers were able to consistently move Brady off of his spot and hit him with regularity.

A factor that could be exacerbating the problem is the lack of effectiveness of the team’s ground game. Unlike last season, this team has not been able to establish the the rushing attack as a means of consistently moving the chains.

After Sunday’s game, the Patriots’ run games totals now stand at 105 carries for 381 yards — just 3.63 yards per carry. Through four games last season (without Tom Brady of course), the team ran the rock 130 times for 542 yards — 4.17 yards per carry.

Clearly a proven way to a keep a pass rush at bay is to run the ball effectively. But it seems as if predictable play calling in certain Patriots personnel packages is contributing to the ground game’s ineffectiveness.

Mike Gillislee has now been on the field for 93 snaps (unofficially) this season, and has turned his 57 carries into 194 yards. However, just 16 of those snaps, or 17%, did not involve a personnel package that would be considered a “power” package. In Sunday’s loss, he received 12 carries on 18 snaps, but every single time he was on the field, he was accompanied by either James Develin, or a two and three-tight end package. Something to keep on eye on moving forward.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter @BPhillips_PP, or by clicking here.