CHARLOTTE – The back end of the Panthers' defense is enduring pain in both the literal and the figurative sense, from the physical pain of countless injuries to the growing pains that go along with turning things over to such an inexperienced group.
Meanwhile, the front end of the defense has its own set of struggles, among them the proverbial pain in the neck created by opposing offenses' extraordinary efforts to limit the line's impact.
The past few seasons, the back end and front end have worked together beautifully, teaming up along with a strong linebacking unit to create one of the NFL's most formidable defenses.
But, heading into the bye week, the defense is dealing with pain rather than inflicting it.
"We made mistakes and took our lumps, but hopefully we'll get things going," head coach Ron Rivera said after the Panthers fell to a 1-5 with a 41-38 loss at the New Orleans Saints. "This is a good week for us. It gives us a chance to evaluate and make sure we're putting them in position and giving them opportunities.
"We've got to make sure everybody is on the same page. If they're not, we've got to get guys that are going to be on the same page and get them out there."
"IT ALWAYS STARTS UP FRONT"
With the secondary in a state of flux (more to come on that), the Panthers find themselves needing to rely on their defensive line more than ever to set the tone for the defense.
So far though, it hasn't played out like Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott would hope.
"Probably the biggest disappointment is that we haven't had the production that we would like out of our front," Rivera said. "The front has done a good job stopping the run, but that's not what's killing us. The thing we have to do is find that productivity.
"We have to find other ways to create opportunities for us to put pressure on the quarterback."
The Panthers essentially return the same defensive line that played an indispensable role in Carolina ranking sixth in the NFL in total defense and scoring defense in 2015. But Kawann Short – who tied for the most sacks among defensive tackles in the NFL with 11 last season – has just one sack so far. Defensive end Kony Ealy, coming off three sacks in the Super Bowl, doesn't yet have a sack.
In some ways, the line is a victim of its own success.
"The more successful you are as a group – and we've been successful in past years – it's going to be harder and harder," Ealy said. "Quarterbacks realize that. They know going into the game that the Carolina Panthers are a defensive front that can disrupt a lot of plays.
"They're going to get the ball out quicker and they're going to do a lot of things in their game plan. Obviously they get paid too, so we just have to be better. Period."
Last Sunday, the Saints thrived in third-and-long situations, thanks in part to providing Drew Brees with extra protection. On third downs with five or yards to gain, Brees was 6-for-7 for 175 yards and two touchdowns. The one incompletion was on a drop that would have resulted in a first down. Another third-and-long resulted in a first down when Brees drew a roughing flag, and the other two were short runs on third-and-15 or more.
"Well, it always starts up front. You need to be able to affect the quarterback in this league," McDermott said. "What they were doing was clear. They were concerned about our pressures, and credit goes to them in that third-and-six-plus window. They were running six, seven and sometimes eight-man protections. They were concerned, in that window, about pressure.
"In that regard, we've got to do a better job of covering."
"THE STATE OF THE UNION BACK THERE"
McDermott is maintaining high expectations for his secondary, even though the deck has been stacked against them.
Carolina started the season with relative veteran Bene Benwikere starting along with promising rookie James Bradberry at cornerback. The defense allowed quarterbacks to throw for a modest 582 yards through three games. But in Week 4, when Bradberry exited early with an injury, Matt Ryan and the Falcons torched the defense for a franchise-record 503 yards.
Benwikere was waived the next week, and Bradberry didn't heal in time to face Tampa Bay. The back end held up fairly well with veteran Robert McClain and rookie Daryl Worley starting against the Buccaneers, but then Brees threw for 465 yards – the second-highest total ever allowed by the Panthers – with McClain out with a hamstring injury and Worley gone midway through the game with a concussion. Rookie Zack Sanchez, who started the year on the practice squad, and special teams specialist Teddy Williams tried to hold down the fort.
"We're a little bit banged up right now, and that's not an excuse – it's the state of the union back there," McDermott said. "I think you look at four out of the six games, and I can honestly say I thought defensively we've given ourselves a chance to win four out of those six games. In the Atlanta game and the New Orleans game, we didn't give ourselves a chance to win defensively. We need to do a better job with that.
"It's a process. It's like being a first-time parent. I'm hoping I'm a lot better parent with the second child and the third child than I was with the first. You make some mistakes early on, and that's experience. There's no substitute for that experience, so some of these young guys are going to make some mistakes, and we've got to learn from those mistakes and we've got to grow. That process unfortunately doesn't always happen overnight."
"IT'S ABOUT COMPLEMENTARY FOOTBALL"
So, what are the Panthers to do?
The bye week comes at an ideal time for the cornerbacks to heal up. It's not unrealistic to think that Bradberry, McClain and Worley could all be back when Carolina hosts Arizona on October 30. It also gives the coaching staff extra time to try to figure out way to jump-start the pass rush.
"What you're seeing when you break the tape down is a lot of double-teaming of our three-techniques and a lot of play action on first and second down. And on third down, we're seeing a few more chips on the outside of our defensive ends," Rivera said. "Those are things we've got to counter. We're going to look at it and try to put those guys in better positions. We're also going to make sure we have the right guys in there rushing."
McDermott, of course, wants the pass rush to crank it up, but he also wants the secondary – young as it is – to carry its weight. Ideally, both groups make a positive impact on every snap. At the least, one group does.
"You have to have both working hand-in-hand in unison," McDermott said. "You see sometimes a guy is open, but all of a sudden the quarterback gets affected. Or vice-versa - the quarterback has time, but then there's great coverage on the back end.
"It's about complementary football, but it's not always going to be working hand-in-hand at the same time. Sometimes one has to cover the other. Just like my strength covers your weakness and your strength covers my weakness - that's how that works."
However the job gets done, now is the time to get it done for a defense with a lot of pride and a lot of work to do.
"In some regards, as a leader and as a coach, this is what you work for," McDermott said. "Anybody can coach and lead when you're 5-0, 6-0 or 7-0. It's times like these where the character and the integrity of myself and the men in our room and this football team and this organization needs to come to the forefront and rise to the top."
View photos of the Panthers' practice heading into the Bye Week.