CHARLOTTE – Eric Washington understands that dropping ball carriers or pass catchers at or behind the line of scrimmage a dozen times doesn't equate to excitement when it's part of a losing effort.
But the Panthers' first-year defensive coordinator also understands it's the type of effort needed to win games going forward.
"We lost a football game yesterday, but in no way, shape or form are we defeated. I saw a group out there yesterday that fought their tails off and gave us a chance to win the football game all the way through," Washington said the day after a 20-19 loss to the Lions. "There are some things that we have to clean up, that we have to fix, that we have to improve. But I love the effort. I love the spirit, the attitude of the men on defense."
Washington counts negative plays (not including sacks) as stops at or behind the line of scrimmage – the kinds of plays that knock an offense off-schedule. Carolina had 11 such plays by his count while limiting the Lions to 3.6 yards per carry, holding Matthew Stafford to 220 passing yards and allowing Detroit to convert just 4-for-12 third downs.
But – and it's a big "but" – the Lions found a way to bounce back from just enough of their unproductive plays to produce a victory.
"There are more plays that we have to make quite honestly, and we'll do everything we possibly can to put ourselves in position to make those plays," Washington said. "I believe we took a step forward – not in the sense of winning and closing the football game, but I think our guys have a strong belief in themselves. They're disappointed, and they're really, really determined. That will serve us well as we go into this weekend at home against Seattle."
The defense no doubt took a step forward from its previous outing, a 52-21 loss to the Steelers on Thursday Night Football. But while stopping nine run plays and three pass plays at or behind the line of scrimmage, Carolina did allow rookie running back Kerryon Johnson to gain at least 11 yards on four of his carries and only sacked Stafford once after he went down 16 times over the previous two games.
The Lions made successful adjustments to help Stafford avoid sacks, and Johnson has been a handful for opposing defenses in several games this season.
"There were a lot of three-step, a lot of check-down type of throws," Washington said. "That doesn't lend itself to a lot of opportunities to hit the quarterback. The pressure was there – our hits on the quarterback led to some incompletions.
"I think we're real close to exactly what we need to do in the run game to support what we want to do in terms of winning the football game, but those explosive plays, we've got to take them out."
In other words, Washington's defense was a lot closer to the unit he envisions than it was against the Steelers, but there's still at least one more step up needed for the effort to qualify as a winning one.
"We just need to tighten some things up," Washington said.