CHARLOTTE — When a defense allows 34 points in one game, the unit must improve for its next contest.
The Panthers had several issues with the Raiders in Week 1. Las Vegas finished 6-of-11 on third down and converted another with a defensive pass interference penalty. Carolina didn't register a sack, or even a quarterback hit on Derek Carr, nor did the defense force a turnover.
Taken individually, all the issues seem daunting, especially considering the Panthers' Week 2 opponent. But what ties them together is the club's failure to stop Las Vegas on first and second down.
Carolina allowed 6.1 yards per play, which ranked No. 25 in Week 1. If an opponent is averaging over six yards per play, that's a first down every two snaps.
"The best third-down defenses play great first- and second-down defense," safety Juston Burris said. "If they're in third-and-long, we know they have to pass, and we can let our great pass rushers go get pressure on the quarterback. But if they're in third-and-short, they have a two-way go whether it's pass or run, and it's a little tougher to make play calls."
To break it down further, on 28 first downs, the Panthers gave up 5.9 yards per play. Things got worse on second down when they surrendered an average of 7.1 yards on 22 plays. Ten of the 23 times Las Vegas moved the chains occurred on second down.
That's why the Raiders had so many short third-down opportunities. Carr took advantage of them, completing 6-of-8 passes for 65 yards with a touchdown. The Raiders also gained 5.7 yards per carry on three third-down attempts.
"We've got to get people in second-and-long, so we get in pass-rush modes along with third-and-long," defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. "We're addressing that, and hopefully, we're much improved this week."
That said, the Panthers know they must do more to generate quarterback pressures. Defensive tackle Kawann Short's absence due to a foot injury won't help. But the Panthers have capable rushers, headlined by defensive end Brian Burns and rookie defensive tackle Derrick Brown.
While many sacks come on third downs because it's a known-passing situation, other chances pop up in a game.
"At the end of the day, it comes down to beating somebody," Burns said. "You've got to win your one-on-ones and get pressure."
As for takeaways, if the Panthers pressure quarterback Tom Brady, they may force him into an interception. But even if he completes a pass, gang tackling can force fumbles.
"The more you're swarming toward the ball, you get more defenders around the ball. When that ball pops out, your chances of recovering the ball goes up," linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. "As long as we continue to play hard the way we are, clean up some of the details, I think (turnovers will) start to come. And when it rains, it pours."
It's worth noting that Carolina overhauled its defense for 2020, and new starters at each level have to jell. As they do over the coming weeks, head coach Matt Rhule anticipates turnovers will start to come.
"We were in position a couple times to maybe make a play and didn't," Rhule said. "I think you'll see over time that the playbook will continue to develop. As guys feel more and more comfortable with the things that we're doing, I think you'll see our guys play faster and faster and faster.
"We'll be a great defense when we generate turnovers, and we can eliminate big plays."
But when it comes to defensive improvement in Week 2, the Panthers know it starts with limiting the run.
"They have good, physical backs, good shifty backs," Whitehead said. "You have to try to make them one dimensional and then put everything on Brady."
If that happens and the defense is efficient on first and second down, the Panthers will have a much better chance of improving in all areas.
"It wasn't some glaring holes. It's continuing to do the little things like not allowing them to get to the edges, tackling, staying in our gaps, not giving up explosive plays, things like that," Burris said. "We've got to hone in on the little things that we were going over in camp."
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