CHARLOTTE - When head coach Ron Rivera talked about the New York Giants prior to last week's matchup, a couple of things immediately sprang to mind, namely their potent pass rush and their cool customer of a quarterback.
Both clicked for the Giants against the Panthers, and it showed on the scoreboard in the form of a convincing victory.
Now, in the wake of the Panthers' lopsided loss and a crucial road contest against the Atlanta Falcons looming, Rivera is aiming to better identify his team's identity.
"When you talk about different teams, you say, 'These guys do this. These guys do that.' Well, we've got to find exactly who we are," Rivera said Monday. "Are we a physical, aggressive, downhill football team? Are we an attacking, big-play team?
"Defensively, we've talked about going out and trying to ball-hawk a little bit, and when we've done that, we've had success. When we didn't, we struggled. That's an example of what I'm talking about."
The Panthers are trying to recapture the identity they enjoyed on offense a year ago, when they ranked fifth in the NFL in scoring and seventh in total offense.
Defensively, they're trying to establish a new identity after ranking 27th in points allowed and 28th in total defense a year ago.
Whatever the coaching staff deems to be the things that each unit does best, the Panthers have to do them consistently if they hope to recover from a 1-2 start and get back in the NFC South race currently headed by the 3-0 Falcons.
"We're lacking consistency in a lot of areas, and we need to get back to that consistency," Rivera said. "When we do things the right way, we've got a chance. We've got to give ourselves opportunities to win football games.
"I'd love to be in the position we were last year, where we get to the fourth quarter and are close. If we give ourselves a chance, we can win a lot more than we don't."
So exactly who do the Panthers want to be on both sides of the ball?
Quarterback Cam Newton has become the face of the franchise and is the No. 1 reason the offense is capable of great things, but the unit's identity begins with the most faceless portion of the depth chart.
"I really believe the offensive line is the heartbeat of any offense," offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinksi recently said. "The group we have makes us tick."
The big guys up front have missed a beat or two in the early part of the season, showing their strength in a victory over the New Orleans Saints but not playing like they'd expected in losses to the Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"We're a good group, and we should be all the time," veteran left tackle Ryan Kalil said. "We can't be up and down."
When the line successfully sets the tone, it then falls on Newton to take advantage. He's a pivotal part of a running game that ranked third in the NFL in 2011, and he heads a passing game that produced Carolina's most net yards since 1999.
"We did a lot of things last year offensively that we very successful, and we were very successful with the quarterback being who he is," Rivera said. "Let's look at what we do very, very well, and let's stick to it. That's what we have to do – stick to it and continue to pound away, pound away, pound away."
At its best, the Panthers offense is a balanced unit, anchored by a physical offensive line and orchestrated by a multi-talented quarterback making good decisions.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said his unit took a step back against the Giants, but the Panthers took appropriate steps toward re-asserting what they want their identity to be in Monday's practice.
"We've got to make sure we get back to doing what we did well the first two weeks, and that mean's playing attack-style football and getting after the football as much as we can," McDermott said. "We didn't get any turnovers last week, and they got five. That's the difference right there."
The Panthers also didn't force any turnovers in their season-opening loss at Tampa Bay, but they picked off Saints quarterback Drew Brees twice in their victory.
"We're focusing on getting the ball out, and on having lots of hats at the ball," defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. "That's a huge part of the game. We've got to find ways to take the ball away, whether it's forced fumbles or interceptions.
"That's on everybody, whether it's getting to the quarterback and forcing tough throws or stopping the run and putting them in situations where they have to pass. It all goes hand-in-hand."
At its best, the Panthers defense is an attacking, turnover-producing unit, getting enough pressure on the quarterback to allow the secondary to challenge receivers and relying on a strong linebacking corps to clean up.
"We have to learn to do it every single time," defensive end Antwan Applewhite said. "Our identity needs to be consistency. We'll play well for a few quarters, or we'll start slow and then play better. We need to be consistent every single play and every single game."