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Notebook: Defense looking to improve on impressive run

231217 WK 15 vs. Falcons-064 (1)

CHARLOTTE — As good as the run defense was a week ago against the Falcons — and it was very good — after the Panthers watched the film of it, they came up with a frightening conclusion. 

"I said, we can play better," linebacker Frankie Luvu said.

That would be impressive, considering the Falcons ran 31 times for 52 yards last week, a 1.7-yard per carry average by a team that entered the game ranked sixth in the league in rushing (132.2 per game). 

Defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero said Thursday that it started up front with the Derrick Brown and the defensive line and edge rushers, including Brian Burns.

"Well, it starts with those guys up front," Evero said. "The challenge was we needed to be better than them up front. Our outside linebackers, our interior D-linemen, and we wanted to be more physical and dominant up front than they were. And those guys delivered on that.

"You know, Derrick has been doing what he normally does. Burns, I think played one of his best games of the year. I just think all the way across the board, we were very physical and very stout up front. So that's where it started."

It's responsible to note that the Falcons were without three starting offensive linemen in that game (like the Panthers are going to apologize for that) since right tackle Kaleb McGary and right guard Chris Lindstrom were inactive, and center Drew Dalman didn't play. 

But that kind of performance on defense has become a pattern for the Panthers in the second half of the season. Since Week 9, the Panthers are second in the league in total defense (257.3 yards per game), eighth against the run (96.4) and third against the pass (160.9). 

So when they got into what Evero described as a "hard hat game" in last week's monsoon, they were fine with that.

"As far as what the tape's saying, yeah, that's the standard, and we got to hold it up there," Luvu said. "And, like I said, shout out to DB in there, man. It is so easy to play behind that big boy and just, you know, have guys climb up to me and knowing that, oh I know DB is going to make the tackle. And every guy up in front in the edges, shout out to them."

— Speaking of trends, the Packers are moving in the other direction on defense. 

They just allowed Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield to post a perfect 158.3 rating at Lambeau last week (along with 381 yards and four touchdowns), and he's the second straight quarterback to win NFC offensive player of the week honors against them (following Tommy Devito of the Giants). The Packers have also allowed 402.8 yards per game over their last five. 

"It's about us being able to show up and play our game," Panthers offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said. "I think being able to be consistent, kind of build upon that last drive (last week) in particular because that kind of gives you a glimpse of what happens when we actually execute and are on the same page, we're making plays across the board, we can put together some drives.

"But it's always more about us than anybody, anybody else. So that's our focus.

Brown also said that 17-play, 7:35 game-winning drive they posted last week serves as an example of what it could be.

"Being able to chew up seven minutes, 35 seconds on the clock to go 17 plays in any condition, I think, is difficult in this league," he said. "I think people sometimes probably overlook that as if it's like everybody can do it.

"I think being able to kind of have our guys be poised, there's no panic, no flinch, and also be great from a situational standpoint. It was great at the end of the game."

Austin Corbett

— When injured right guard Austin Corbett came in Thursday morning, he was carrying several trays of homemade holiday treats from his wife, Madison.

It was a kind gesture, for sure.

But there's also a risk that comes with community food at a time when it seems like half the locker room is either actively sick or just getting over it.

But Corbett, who graduated from the University of Nevada with a degree in public health, didn't just bring cookies.

He dropped a container of hand sanitizer next to each tray of goodies (one on either ping pong table on each end of the locker room), just to be on the safe side of a lot of hands.

"Just trying to be smart about it," Corbett joked.

JD DiRenzo

— With Corbett's injury, among many others, plenty of linemen have gotten to play this year for the Panthers.

For rookie J.D. DiRenzo, last week provided an opportunity for him to appear in his first game after he was elevated from the practice squad to get some snaps. He found out last Tuesday that was likely to be the case, but his parents (Wayne and Anne DiRenzo) had already made plans to fly from New Jersey to Charlotte to see him, so their first chance to see him play was made memorable by the monsoon he was playing in.

"I found out I was active, and it was their first game of the year that they've been to, so it's a crazy coincidence that the first game they come to is the first game I'm active," DiRenzo said. "They weren't going to miss out on that. They had their ponchos, and they were out there all game."

They might have come to Charlotte for a visit sooner, but his dad's coming off knee replacement surgery himself, so he was on injured reserve and unable to travel for a bit. And they've headed back home already for what DiRenzo described as "a big Italian family party that they host."

So even though he played a grand total of four snaps as an extra blocker, the setting and the scene and his family in attendance made it a special day for the undrafted rookie.

He said offensive line coach James Campen always encourages the entire room, even the practice squad, to be ready at a moment's notice anyway (you never know where the illness is going to hit next), but since he knew it was coming, he focused on details as small as hydration and rest the night before the game to be ready.

"It was a great feeling knowing that the front office and coaching staff and coach Campen trust me enough to activate me and put me in those in-game situations. There's one even in the fourth quarter on that final drive, I got in a play there. So it was just really, really fun to get out there finally after being on the practice squad for a while.

"The main thing is that routine because when you're in the practice squad after Saturday's walkthrough, you're done until Monday or Wednesday, depending on what we have. So I guess adjusting to the routine of having to hydrate extra and get a lot of sleep Saturday night was mainly the biggest thing. But one thing about coach Campen is he always makes sure that everyone is ready, whether you're on the practice squad or not, because you never know what could happen. Someone could get sick, and you could be called up. So he makes sure that we're always ready, and we know the game plan just as well as anyone else within the room just in case that does happen."

View photos from the Panthers' practice on Thursday.

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