Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ run defense? ‘Terrible.’ How the guilty parties reacted might surprise you.

Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman (26) runs for some of his 107 rushing yards Sunday against the Carolina Panthers and cornerback Donte Jackson (26) in Atlanta. Coleman broke the Panthers’ 21-game streak without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman (26) runs for some of his 107 rushing yards Sunday against the Carolina Panthers and cornerback Donte Jackson (26) in Atlanta. Coleman broke the Panthers’ 21-game streak without allowing a 100-yard rusher. AP

Well, there was no dancing around the question.

Of all the eyesores that presented themselves Sunday during the Carolina Panthers’ 31-24 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, run defense would certainly rank near — or at — the top of the list. The Falcons snapped Carolina’s 21-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher, as Atlanta backup Tevin Coleman ran through and around the Panthers’ defense at will. Even Atlanta’s third-string back, Ito Smith, averaged more than 5 yards per carry to compliment Coleman’s 107 yards.

And so disappears what was the longest such streak in the NFL, and the longest ever for the Panthers’ historically defensive-minded franchise.

But the key word there?

Was.

Another key word? How coach Ron Rivera assessed that same rushing defense.

“Terrible.”

“We made too many mistakes,” Rivera said. “We didn’t give ourselves a chance to win. We’ve got to be disciplined, and we’ve got to be more disciplined than that.

“We can’t do those things. We have to go back and we have to correct.”

The 170 total yards Atlanta gained on the ground were more than any Panthers opponent had last season — the Saints racked up 149 yards in Week 3 and 148 in Week 13. And the other thing? Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, he of the five career rushing touchdowns entering Sunday, scored twice with his legs for the first time in his career.

And when the “elusive” Matt Ryan does that to your defense, you know it was a rough day.

“We’ve got to stop the run,” defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “That’s the most important thing. And we didn’t do it.”

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The theme in Carolina’s postgame locker room was that tackling, a traditional hallmark of this defense, just wasn’t great Sunday. Even linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had 13 tackles in Week 1 against Dallas, saw Coleman break out of his arm tackles and plod right on through.

But for as disappointed as Carolina’s defensive leaders were — and they had pride in that streak — there wasn’t a sense that the sky was falling.

There was no panic. No outrage. Rather, a strange sense of ... calm?

Think of it this way. There are two natural reactions after a subpar performance.

One, you freak out. Players throw one another under the proverbial bus, assigning blame freely and openly. There’s a sense of jitters, and of pressure, and of not being able to handle either one.

Or, the second option, is you contextualize. You recognize that, hey, did we play poorly? Yes. No skirting that.

But also, you realize the circumstances. You realize it’s Week 2. You realize there’s 14 more games left to play, including a rematch against Atlanta back at your place. You realize that yes, for as bad as this was, there’s plenty of time still to self-correct. You realize that there were still bright spots defensively, such as containing Julio Jones, and Donte Jackson’s first career interception (although he ultimately left the game with a hamstring injury). Maybe most importantly, you realize you’re a veteran-laden team stocked with Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers.

And Carolina, when faced with that decision, was smart enough to choose the latter.

“We just didn’t play our best ball,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said, “but it’s early. It’s early, man. We’ve got a long way to go, 14 more games to go. We’ve still got all our goals ahead of us, still got everything in front of us. Now we’ve just gotta take it from here.”

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That was the same sentiment from all of the Panthers’ most-tenured defenders. Kuechly, to Short, to cornerback James Bradberry, to safety Mike Adams — everyone.

“It’s not time to throw somebody under the bus — we’re a team, we stay together,” Adams said. “We didn’t tackle together as a group. We have to do better, and we will, and that’s the best part about it.

“We get to line up next week and try again.”

So yes, the Panthers knew what they messed up, but they also had the wherewithal to know they can fix it. If you do something 21 times in a row, against some of the most dominant professional athletes out there, you don’t just forget how you did it in the course of one Atlanta afternoon.

It’s a different story if Sunday’s result signals the start of a more troubling trend. In that case, calmness probably isn’t what you need to see.

But given the veteran leadership and experience on this defense, it makes complete sense at this point to take a measured approach.

“I’m a defensive head coach, and to have that happen, I won’t stand for that. I will get that corrected,” Rivera said. “Again, it’s early in the season, we’re going to make some mistakes. We’ve got to get those things corrected if we expect to win football games.”

The good news for the Panthers is there’s still time to do that. Starting next Sunday, at home against Cincinnati.

Recognizing that was the first step in fixing the problem. Now comes the second:

Actually proving it’s fixable.

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