CHARLOTTE - Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said Sunday's defensive showing in a 49-35 loss at the Detroit Lions was "probably the worst I've been around as a coach."
It is also arguably the worst performance the Panthers have endured in franchise history.
Carolina allowed franchise records for yardage (495) and first downs (29) and has yielded more points just twice in team history. As a result, the Panthers lost for just the second time ever when scoring 35 or more points.
"In the first half, for the most part, we handled things pretty well. This is the first time in the third quarter that I felt like defensively we let it go," Rivera said Monday. "That was tough, and the thing that was disappointing was that we had some opportunities.
"It really came down to executing our assignments."
The defense did its job and then some early, forcing turnovers on Detroit's first three possessions. From there, though, the Lions scored seven touchdowns against just two punts.
"There was a lot that didn't work after the second quarter," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "I've watched it probably six or seven times already, trying to find solutions. It comes back to having the right call, putting ourselves in position to make plays and when the play is there to be made, making the play.
"When you lose like we did, there are things I want to do better as a defensive coordinator, and I will do better. I'm going to work tirelessly at it. It's not a question of 'if' but of 'when' we'll get this thing going. We've got players in that room that are committed, good character guys that want to play well, want to win and give great effort."
PLAY TO WIN: The defense made several plays early in the game to help the Panthers build a 24-7 lead, but the unit couldn't keep it up.
"We came out on fire," McDermott said. "All of a sudden we're up 24-7, and we lost our edge. That can't happen."
The downfall seemed to begin on a third-and-12 for Detroit from its own 35-yard line midway through the second quarter – a play Rivera mentioned multiple times both Sunday and Monday.
On the play, Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson caught a short pass about five yards past the line of scrimmage but managed to turn it into a 15-yard gain. That kept alive a touchdown drive that pulled Detroit within 24-14, the first of six touchdowns the Lions would score over their final seven drives.
"We've got this team down 24-7, and we have a chance to get off the field on the third down. If we do, they punt and we get good field position and go down and score, it could have been 31-7. That's what we have to learn to do," Rivera said. "We've got to find a way to not lose a game and worry about winning a game.
"Part of our problem is that when something bad happens, the wind goes right out of our sails. Instead of trying to find another way to get wind in our sails, we're trying to slow it down. We can't do that. We've got to have that killer instinct."
CRUCIAL CATCH: Remarkably, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford tossed five touchdown passes without a single one going to wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who entered the game with three more touchdown receptions (11) than anyone in the NFL.
That doesn't mean Johnson didn't make an impact.
On the first snap after the Panthers tied the score at 35-all with 4:59 to play, Stafford launched a pass that Johnson hauled in at midfield for a 30-yard gain between cornerback Chris Gamble and safety Sherrod Martin to jumpstart the game-winning touchdown drive.
"We try to focus on attacking the ball, but he judged it better than we did and went up and got it," Martin said. "He actually was in front of me, and he attacked the ball at a higher point than I did."
Rivera said in that situation the 6-1 Martin must learn to take a different tact against a receiver like the 6-5 Johnson.
"You'd like to see Sherrod Martin take a better angle," Rivera said. "Sherrod was taking an angle where he thought he could intercept the pass. His whole mentality was going for the interception, and all of a sudden Calvin went up and plucked it.
"Now it's getting our young safety to realize who he's competing against and go for the breakup, go for the big hit."
HURTING THE CAUSE: Rivera easily could have blamed the defensive struggles on the rash of injuries that have disproportionally damaged the linebacker position.
Three of the team's top four linebackers – Jon Beason (out for season), Thomas Davis (out for season) and Dan Connor (shoulder injury) – didn't play Sunday. The one starter still standing, James Anderson, played but is trying to shake off an ankle injury.
Also at linebacker, Thomas Williams is on injured reserve, Jason Phillips missed his second straight game with a calf injury, and Omar Gaither started Sunday but aggravated a knee injury that cost him two games earlier in the season.
On Sunday, the defensive line took a couple of hits as well, with ends Charles Johnson (back) and Greg Hardy (ankle) getting dinged.
"I really don't want to give an excuse. You play who is on your team – you play the hand that you're dealt," Rivera said. "You'd like to hope and believe that when somebody steps in for somebody else, the other 10 guys rally around him. Maybe it's unrealistic, but these guys are in the league for a reason. They're professionals who have made it to the NFL level."