CHARLOTTE – The Panthers are allowing the fewest yards of any defense in the NFL: 274.1 per game.
Trailing 10-0 on Sunday against Atlanta, their refusal to allow just one yard on consecutive plays turned the game in Carolina's favor.
"We didn't waver at all," defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said proudly.
It was third-and-1 from the Carolina 35-yard line late in the second quarter when Falcons running back Tevin Coleman ran up the middle and was stuffed by defensive tackle Kawann Short for no gain.
Atlanta went for it on fourth-and-1, handing the ball to running back Devonta Freeman off the right side. But Freeman ran into a wall. Safety Kurt Coleman darted through the line to disrupt the lead-blocking fullback, and linebacker Thomas Davis collapsed down to force the turnover on downs.
"It's just a sense of pride around here," Short said. "Those guys challenged us, and you've got to step up as a defense. That's what we do. We strive to be the best in those kind of situations. We've got to take control and win. We want to be that dominant defense on fourth-and-one."
On the season, Carolina's opponents are 12-of-25 on third- and fourth-and-1 to go, which is fourth-best in the NFL.
Following that fourth-down stop on Freeman, the Panthers scored on four consecutive possessions to build a 20-10 lead.
"Great penetration up front," Wilks said. "Kurt came up with an outstanding play, knifing the fullback and getting in there to make that tackle. That got guys excited.
"We gained momentum there, and most importantly, the guys take a lot of pride in every situation. We are just not going to concede because it's third-and-one or fourth-and-one. … There is a lot of confidence we have that we are going to stop our opponent."
The game ultimately came down to one more stop when the Falcons regained possession at their own 21-yard line, trailing 20-17 with 2:18 remaining.
Atlanta's first play – a pass in the flat to Freeman – resulted in a 3-yard loss thanks to a big hit from Coleman. Three plays and three incompletions later, the defense was celebrating the outcome they expected.
"You need that swag," Wilks said.
The confidence that has developed is what has Wilks most excited about his No. 1 ranked defense – a unit that has held every offense it's played below its season average in net yards while holding San Francisco, Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago to season lows.
When the Panthers claimed a 17-3 victory two weeks ago at Tampa Bay, it was the fourth time this season Carolina didn't allow an offensive touchdown. The Buccaneers joined the 49ers, Bills and Bears on that list.
But if anyone thinks those impressive numbers through nine weeks of the season are going to prompt Wilks to say the defense has "arrived" in any way, they're sorely mistaken.
"I don't really get caught up in the numbers," Wilks said. "We're number one right now. We have a lot of football to play. I've said this before, this defense is not where it wants to be.
"We are going to enjoy the season when the season is over. Stay focused on being focused."
View the top photos from Panthers vs. Falcons by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez and second shooters Andrew Dye and Jamey Price.