Thanks to a three-game lull, the Panthers are 25th in the league against the run, giving up 128.8 yards a game.
The Panthers have allowed a 100-yard rusher in each of the past three games.
Atlanta's Michael Turner, the back the Panthers will face Sunday, has run for 100 yards or more in six of his 10 games against Carolina, including a Week 4 meeting this season.
And then there's this: Defensive tackle Ron Edwards, the Panthers' best run-stuffer, is on injured reserve, and Dwan Edwards, the team's other starting defensive tackle, has a severed tendon in his right wrist.
Other than that, things are looking rosy for the Panthers' run defense.
“Obviously, (against Kansas City) we took a step back,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “The run game in particular over the last – the end of the Tampa game, the Philadelphia game and this (Chiefs) game – we’ve got to get that corrected.”
They’ll try to correct it without Edwards, the 6-3, 325-pound veteran whom head coach Ron Rivera affectionately calls a “space-eater.”
With Edwards out all of the 2011 season – his first with the Panthers – after triceps surgery, the Panthers finished 25th in the NFL in run defense, allowing 130.8 yards a game.
Thanks to the current three-game lull, in which they've allowed an average of 176.3 yards a game, the Panthers have virtually the same run defense statistics this season. They are again 25th in the league, giving up 128.8 yards a game.
The Panthers have been gashed all sorts of running backs.
Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin rushed for 138 yards on 24 carries in the Bucs' Week 11 win against Carolina.
In a Monday night game at Philadelphia, Bryce Brown – the nation's No. 1 recruit who flamed out at Tennessee and Kansas State before the Eagles got him off the scrap heap – ran for 178 yards, two touchdowns and a 9.4-yard average. The Panthers mitigated the damage by forcing Brown to fumble twice in the second half.
And last week at Kansas City, Jamaal Charles, on of the NFL’s best running backs, went for 127 yards on 27 carries.
Opponents have rushed for 5.3 yards a carry against the Panthers over the past three games.
McDermott said the issues have been losing the physical battle up front and compromising “gap integrity,” meaning the front seven failing to hold their ground and getting out of position.
“It doesn't take much for a successful run to happen,” said Dwan Edwards, who is questionable for Sunday's game against Atlanta. “A guy's out of their gap, a wrong step, bad hand placement – a lot of stuff goes into it. We definitely have to do a better job stopping the run.”
Run defense goes hand-in-hand with pass rush and secondary play. A 5- or 6-yard run on first down gives the offense a myriad of play-calling options and makes it harder for the defense to blitz or bring in extra rushers or defensive backs.
“We get more second-and-long, third-and-long situations, I think sacks go up, we can pin our ears back,” Edwards added. “The last two weeks we've been getting a lot of second-and-short, third-and-short. That's hampered our ability to get after the quarterback a little bit.”
In the first meeting with the Falcons, the Panthers tied a franchise record by sacking quarterback Matt Ryan seven times. While Turner ran for 103 yards, the Falcons had 19 running plays and 40 passes.
Of the Panthers' seven sacks, only three came on second- or third-and-long situations.
“(Ryan) likes to hold the ball” in the pocket, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said. “That's not something he should do when you come to town or when you're playing the Carolina Panthers. That's going to have repercussions.”
The loss of Ron Edwards has had repercussions. After Sione Fua and Andre Neblett were ineffective early against the Chiefs, Hardy moved to defensive tackle, which hurt the team's edge pass rush.
The Panthers have no one as wide or as experienced as Edwards, who dislocated his elbow against the Eagles and is out for the season.
“That's what Ron was brought in to do,” weakside linebacker Thomas Davis said. “I think he did a great job of that. For us as linebackers, he kept guys off of us. We were able to flow free to the ball. Sione, he's got to step up. He's got to be that guy now. We've got Dwan. We've got other guys that have to fill in.”
According to Rivera, the trick for the fill-ins is to step up without trying to do too much.
“I think there are some things that are happening because guys are trying to make something happen as opposed to hey, get in position, put yourself in position and let it come to you,” he said.