Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ poor defensive performance: ‘Terrible’ and ‘lazy,’ or just ‘small things’?

Atlanta running back Ito Smith (25) runs past Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson (54) during the second half on Sunday in Atlanta, gaining some of the Falcons’ 170 rushing yards.
Atlanta running back Ito Smith (25) runs past Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson (54) during the second half on Sunday in Atlanta, gaining some of the Falcons’ 170 rushing yards. AP

Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was disappointed in his defense on Sunday after a 31-24 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, in which his team gave up 442 yards — including 170 rushing.

So much so, in fact, that after calling his team’s rushing defense “terrible” on Sunday, he used a description on Monday morning for the group’s errors that he seldom, if ever, has before.

“It was a little bit of physical nature, a little bit of mental nature,” he said. “A couple of times not knowing how to fit or where to fit, and a couple of times playing behind, playing a little lazy.

“And we can’t accept that and we won’t tolerate that.”

Rivera’s phrasing will likely be motivating for the Panthers’ defense, which finished last season ranked No. 3 in the NFL against the run by allowing just 88.1 rushing yards per game.

Carolina also had not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 21 games, an NFL-best streak that was snapped by Tevin Coleman’s 107 yards on Sunday.

The Panthers front seven is full of veterans who haven’t had a habit of making mistakes. In fact, Carolina’s defense is more known for causing them.

“I was disappointed last night, as you can tell by my tone,” Rivera said. “We have a standard. The standard has been here since (former defensive coordinators) Sean McDermott was here with us, Steve Wilks was with us and now Eric Washington. And we’re not going to tolerate it. We’re going to put players out on the field that we believe are doing it our way, playing hard, and giving us every opportunity to succeed.”

Correctable, but how big?

Rivera said the team’s mistakes are correctable.

Starting defensive tackle Dontari Poe agreed — with most of what Rivera said, anyway.

“I wouldn’t say it was all the way ‘lazy’. I think we missed some stuff at times,” Poe said. “And a couple more times, a couple people could’ve made plays and didn’t. Like I said, just a couple small things we need to fix.”

After Washington watched the film, he addressed the players on Monday morning and told them he still believes that they can be the best defense in the NFL. But they have to play faster, he said, and they have to fix the little things.

Washington said he saw a group on Monday morning that, though disappointed, was confident in its ability to fix the mistakes.

“Confidence ain’t changed,” Poe said. “We’re constantly playing, we’re constantly working. And that’s all we’re focused on.”

Panthers Falcons Football (14).JPG
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) runs against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, in Atlanta. Ryan, a pocket passer, scored a career-best two rushing touchdowns against Carolina. (AP Photo/John Amis) John Amis AP

It starts up front

Atlanta was able to stay two-dimensional against Carolina in part because they had chunk rushing plays from Coleman and Ito Smith.

The Falcons employ a wide zone, which Washington said is very technique-specific, particularly for the interior line and linebackers. The defensive tackles must “set the table” for the linebackers, he said.

“When we always talk about that scheme, we emphasize with our defensive tackles that they have to play great,” he said. “And that means they have to penetrate, we have to get great edges set and then our linebackers have to play downhill.

“And a couple of times, we weren’t exactly doing that to the degree that I’ve seen us do it in the past, specifically against that scheme. And it really created some indecision with the second level of defenders (like) the linebackers, or if we had a safety rotating down into the box.”

Smith broke off 13- and 18-yard carries in the third quarter and Coleman had long carries of 19, 27 and 36 yards. Washington said the defense must revisit its fundamentals against that scheme.

“It ain’t tricky. It’s a wide zone scheme,” Poe said. “So we just gotta play physical, we gotta play vertical. It’s on the two dudes on the inside, the two defensive tackles. So we just have to make sure we’re on our game to make it easier for the defense.”

Missing pass rush ... and Peppers?

Ryan only took two hits on Sunday and wasn’t sacked, a huge pivot from Carolina’s six sacks against Dallas in Week 1.

“And he didn’t get into enough third-and-longs,” Rivera said. “You get a team into enough third-and-longs, you can cut your pass-rush loose. We didn’t get enough of that.”

The pass-rush was notably absent, and Julius Peppers, one of the league’s most prolific defensive ends, was too.

Peppers, who has not been made available for comment by the Panthers since last season, has not recorded a sack through the first two games. He has two tackles and a quarterback hit, and has played 35 percent of the team’s defensive snaps.

In 2017, Peppers’ played 50 percent of the defensive snaps and tied for the team lead in sacks with 11.

Rivera said Peppers, 38, is being worked back in to the offense after an offseason spent recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum. He missed training camp and the preseason while doing so.

“His snaps are not as high as they typically are,” Rivera said. “This week, again, he played (well), but I do agree you didn’t see him around the ball. But he’s working at it. He’s getting himself back into football shape. Typically you play about two or three games before you get your feet under you, and I believe he’s at that point now.”

Washington doesn’t think Peppers needs any more time to get his legs under him before the Panthers host Cincinnati on Sunday at 1 p.m.

“He needs to play more, and he will,” he said. “We need to do a better job with the rotation, getting Pep in the game in obvious passing situations and just rotating him in in general.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue