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Rebuilding their reputation

Panthers defense

CHARLOTTE — Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow didn't mind admitting, the Cowboys caught him off guard last week, showing him things he didn't expect.

He at least has some more background on his next opponent.

The Panthers looked surprised a week ago against the Cowboys, allowing a ridiculous 245 rushing yards, when they were giving up 45.0 per game going in. And Snow, the straight-shooter that he is, acknowledged that a lot of the extra lineman and multiple-tight end packages the Cowboys used were new to them.

The other part was more simple, as Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys line kind of pushed them around in the second half.

"Well, really the tailback had 50 yards in the first half. We can live with that," Snow said. "In the second half, they came out with some big groups that they had not really shown. We didn't prepare for that; we were working on empty and other stuff, they had not shown any of that. So a lot of it is on me. We didn't really rep some of the stuff they did.

"And physically, that offensive line and that tailback were ready for a fight, and I'm not sure we were. The combination of both in the second half, they ran the ball on us and controlled the game."

That's the kind of brutal honesty players are used to from Snow, and it's been clear all week that they're intent on repairing their reputation. They were leading the league in total defense and rushing defense going into the Cowboys game, and they're down to third and 10th in those categories now.

"I felt like they just beat us," linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. said. "They did whatever they wanted, honestly in the run game. A couple of fit things obviously. But we've got to be more aggressive, be more physical, and bring that to the table. It's going to be a fight, and we have to understand every Sunday is going to be a fight.

"We put blood in the water, and we have to be ready to attack the run game every Sunday now."

Showing vulnerability or being battered physically is one thing. But both veteran defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and outside linebacker Haason Reddick said there were a troubling amount of technique errors in their own play, which had been clean previously.

"Just making sure you're reading your keys, really just fundamental D-line play," defensive end Morgan Fox said of the things they had to fix. "Read your keys, make sure your get-off is good, your hands are good, sometimes the little things you lose sight of when you're trying to win a game and you're playing a good team.

"Sometimes it's football, and you've got to keep it simple and get back to the basics."

Of course, they have to do it against a basically different offense now.

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts leads his team in rushing, and has shown the ability to get outside and make big plays happen with his feet. He also brings a different element of designed runs and run-pass options. So while there was some disappointment in not getting to Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott for any sacks a week ago, this week is a different challenge, since keeping Hurts in the pocket cuts into his effectiveness.

"You definitely have to be able to rush and not rush scared, but you also have to have good integrity and know where he's at at all times," Fox said of Hurts. "He can make a guy miss, and he's a really strong player. You can see him shrug guys off when they're on sacks and make something happen after that. You really have to come with your hard hat and make sure you're ready to play."

Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) carries the ball as he cuts back on Baylor cornerback Jameson Houston, right, during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Waco, Texas, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. Oklahoma won 34-31. (AP Photo/Ray Carlin)

His big-play ability is nothing new to Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and Snow, who saw him twice in 2019 when they were at Baylor and Hurts was starring at Oklahoma.

In those two games (both wins), he combined for 584 passing yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions, but also 50 carries for 152 yards.

Most of those rushing yards came in the regular-season game, when he ran 27 times for 114 yards. When they saw him again in the Big 12 title game, Baylor held him to 38 yards on 23 carries.

"I think Jalen can affect you with his arm, and also his ability to escape the pocket and run, designed quarterback runs, and all the RPOs. It's a real challenge," Rhule said. "A lot of the stuff we did last year that people would say was a college defense, that's a perfect defense for this offense.

"We've experienced a lot of life like this."

But until they stop the run — in all its forms — they know teams will continue to try them.

View photos from Thursday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on Philadelphia on Sunday.

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