CHARLOTTE — When all the other things weren't quite right this season, the Panthers were generally able to count on their defense to keep them in a game.
Sunday, they couldn't get off the field, and the team paid the price, in a 27-21 loss to Washington that dropped them to 5-6 on the season — and 2-4 at home.
The Panthers couldn't stop Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke (three touchdowns and a 141.3 passer rating) and wide receiver Terry McLaurin (five catches for 103 yards) at key moments, and for the fourth time this year, they were gashed in the run game in a loss. Those three factors left them struggling for answers, to why the most dependable part of their game was such an issue Sunday.
They entered the week ranked second in the league in total defense (280.7 yards per game), but allowed 369 yards Sunday.
And for fourth-year cornerback and team captain Donte Jackson, it hit differently, since he was on the other end of a few of those big plays to McLaurin. Asked after the game how much of the loss could be attributed to the struggles of a young team to learn how to win in big spots, Jackson dismissed it while growing emotional about his own play.
"None. We're done with that, being the young team, and all that," Jackson said. "It's solely on us. It's what do we want to do with this thing. That comes back on the leaders. That comes back on the guys that have been in the fire plenty of times, who've been in hard times of adversity plenty of times to pull us out.
"I just want to be the best for my team and be that guy that makes plays in clutch situations. I just don't think I was Action Jackson today. I just think I was number 26."
Jackson was far from alone in the struggles, as the Panthers allowed Washington to control the clock for nearly 36 minutes (35:53-24:07), and to convert enough third downs (6-of-13) to keep the clock moving and the Carolina offense off the field.
When Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey were out there, they did some good things, but the offense only had 49 snaps to do those things.
That's largely because, like a few previous opponents, the Football Team was able to muscle up the Panthers, and run the ball effectively up the middle.
In their six losses this year, they're averaging 163.0 yards per game allowed on the ground. But in four of those, it became glaring, a clear road map for other teams to follow. A Panthers defense built for speed and coverage and pressuring quarterbacks is also susceptible at times to big days on the ground.
The 190 yards Washington gained Sunday put it in the egregious category with Dallas (245), Minnesota (198), and New England (151).
In their five wins this season, the Panthers are allowing 56.4 rushing yards per game.
So when Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was asked if he saw a common thread in those losses, he provided a long list of factors.
"Just when we are not disciplined, when we are not in our gap, when we are not tackling well. We were very clear coming into the game that we knew they were going to run the football. They are one of the better teams on third down," Rhule said of Washington, which went a combined 8-of-15 on third and fourth down.
"They were going to run the football and try to be in third and manageable, convert third downs. We couldn't get off the field on third down. Had a hard time winning versus man. Then just couldn't stop the run."
Things appeared to be moving in the Panthers' favor, when Newton gave them a 14-7 lead and whipped the crowd into a frenzy with a 24-yard touchdown run which stirred echoes of the past. But Heinicke responded with a 12-play, 71-yard touchdown drive to tie the game at the break, and then Washington opened the second half with another 10-play touchdown drive.
"I just think that it was all self-inflicted," cornerback Stephon Gilmore said of the defensive breakdowns. "It was the things that we didn't do well that coming into this game we knew we had to do well to win. It was our fault. We just have to watch the film and learn from it."
Again, the Panthers are far from out of things at 5-6, especially in a convoluted NFC. But if they can't fix things on the side of the ball they trust the most, they're running out of time for it to matter.
View photos from Sunday's Week 11 game between Carolina and Washington at Bank of America Stadium.