CHARLOTTE — Veteran outside linebacker Haason Reddick started the tough-love conversation earlier this week, saying the Panthers needed to face some hard truths after last week's loss to Washington.
"It wasn't good enough, and we have to throw the friendships out the way, the buddy-buddy out the way," Reddick said Monday.
Head coach Matt Rhule followed that up with an equally matter-of-fact message on Wednesday, when asked about the things that went wrong defensively during a game in which they allowed 190 yards on the ground.
"We got out-hit," Rhule said simply, referring to a classic Bill Walsh sign which read: "I will not get out-hit at any time."
"We got out-hit. Which was disappointing," Rhule continued. "I think what happened was, sometimes you show up for a show, and a game breaks out. Washington came to fight us and play us. And we got up early, and everyone was having fun, and all of a sudden, a game broke out. They were running the football, and we needed to respond, and we responded in kind of a panicky way, and everybody tried to make a play.
"So you look at the football, and sometimes it's almost unrecognizable."
Rhule spelled out a number of the mistakes, including double-teams never arriving, and cornerbacks such as Donte Jackson being left without help over the top.
"Everyone talked about Donte afterwards, but Donte got hung out to dry a lot," Rhule said. "He was supposed to have help and didn't have help. Just a lot of panic. A lot of really good guys that all of a sudden it was a battle, and they started trying to make plays and do things outside of the defense. And the defense works. If we just do our jobs on defense, the defense works.
"I only verbalize all that because I think it's such an important message for our players. Our players know it; we just have to keep saying it. Do our jobs and play really, really hard. It'll be a challenge this week, because Miami plays really, really hard."
The Dolphins aren't necessarily built to exploit the run defense in the same way the Football Team was, as they're 31st in the league in rushing offense, at 77.4 yards per game. That's a lot closer to the 56.4 rushing yards per game the Panthers have allowed in their five wins than the 160.3 they've allowed in six losses.
But because of the way last week's game unraveled, the Panthers are also not in a position to take anything for granted.
That's why film sessions this week have been blunt, and honest.
"In meeting rooms, getting after guys," defensive end Brian Burns said Wednesday of those conversations. "It's not coming from a place of hate. It's coming from love and wanting to see that guy get better and do better for the team. That's pretty much what he (Reddick) means by that.
"You want to cut all the sensitiveness and all the bull out of it. We come in to do our jobs, and our job is to win."
When that unfolds the way it did last week, there's plenty of accountability to go around. Burns called the film sessions "the true epitome of owning up to your stuff," and was quick to admit there were a number of times when he was raising his hand.
"Facts," he said. "I don't think anybody played a great game last game, as far as defense. It was mistakes all across the board. But it just takes one guy to mess up. It's not one guy every single play; it's one guy here, one guy here, which turns to a consistent mess-up as a defense."
Burns said the honesty was "pretty uplifting, in my opinion," and players were taking the criticism constructively.
"At the end of the day, you have to learn from your mistakes," he said. "You just can't dwell on them, because it will be a tumbling effect the rest of the season. So we've been preaching, everyone hold themselves accountable and hold each other accountable. That's our main theme right now."
Rhule said he wanted to be careful not to "overreact to a bad game," but they're also not wasting a chance at an object lesson. He's not ready to make big lineup changes, since he's seen this group play well.
The Panthers are still second in the league in total defense, though they've slipped to 19th against the run. That means there's still plenty going right. And as muddled as the NFC is this year, there's still time for it to matter.
But make no mistake, the time to fix it is now. And based on their conversations, they're all aware of it.
See photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to travel to Miami this weekend.