What a difference a week makes.
Just seven days after the Atlanta Falcons bowled through the Carolina Panthers’ defense to the tune of 170 rushing yards and two touchdowns, that same unit excelled.
Falcons running back Tevin Coleman might have snapped the team’s 21-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher, but in a 31-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, it was back to normal.
Now, the trick is building it week-by-week, proving Atlanta was the exception, not Cincinnati.
The Bengals, with their lead back Joe Mixon unavailable because of injury, relied on former UNC star Gio Bernard to lead their ground game Sunday. Given Bernard rushed for 137 yards when the teams last met in 2014, including an 89-yarder that still stands as the longest play of his professional career, the Panthers knew exactly what kind of trouble the 5-foot-9 scatback can cause.
But he largely didn’t. Bernard finished with 61 yards on 12 carries, one of which went for 23 yards down the right sideline.
“They did pop a big run on us, but it really was a certain set of circumstances,” coach Ron Rivera said Monday. “You’ve got to give them credit for the play.”
Take away Bernard’s 23-yarder on the first play of the second half and his numbers are much more pedestrian: 11 carries and 38 yards, just 3.5 yards per carry.
That’s much more in line with what Rivera and defensive coordinator Eric Washington, not to mention Carolina’s defensive linemen, expect out of their run defense. And yet...
“If you want to look at the defensive side first, one of the things that we have to continue to work on is our run fits,” Rivera said. “We’ve had a little glitch here and there in every game we’ve played.
“I look forward to the point where we don’t have that little something here or something there.”
The good Sunday obviously outweighed the bad, especially considering the boost that defensive line provided as far as producing takeaways. Carolina had four interceptions Sunday, including two by rookie cornerback Donte Jackson, but those plays don’t come as a result of the secondary alone.
“I think a big part of it too is in the games that we’ve gotten the takeaways, we’ve been able to get early pressure on the quarterback,” Rivera said, “and I think that disrupts a lot of the timing.”
But for as much improvement as the team showed Sunday against Cincinnati, the sample size is still relatively small. Two encouraging games against Dallas and Cincy, one not-so-good result against Atlanta. Things won’t get any easier after the bye week this week. The New York Giants and No. 2 overall draft pick, running back Saquon Barkley, come to town in Week 5.
At least there are two weeks of preparation to work on correcting that “glitch.”
“It would be easy if it was one individual, but it pops up here and there, so it’s just something that we’ve got to continue to work at,” Rivera said. “We’ve got to continue to develop that trust that, hey, we’re going to be where we need to be.
“Just a couple of little detail things that we’ve got to shore up and get fixed, and play a little more disciplined as far as those things are concerned.”