ATLANTA – In the season-opening win against the Cowboys, the Panthers defense did two things particularly well: stopping the run and rushing the passer.
Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott was bottled up all day and quarterback Dak Prescott was sacked six times.
In Sunday’s 31-24 loss to the Falcons, the Panthers were exposed in both areas.
Atlanta running back Tevin Coleman, who started in place of injured Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman, rushed for 107 yards on 16 carries, becoming the first player to eclipse the 100-yard mark against Carolina in 22 games to snap what was an NFL-best streak.
“Terrible,” head coach Ron Rivera said of his team’s run defense, which allowed 170 yards in total – the most Carolina has allowed since Seattle racked up 240 in 2016. “We made too many mistakes. We didn’t give ourselves a chance. We have to be more disciplined than that.
“I’m a defensive head coach, and to have that happen – I will not stand for that. I will get that corrected.”
Coleman and the Falcons offensive line deserve credit for consistently gashing Carolina’s defense. But several Panthers noted the high number of missed tackles that contributed to Atlanta’s success on the ground.
“We have to tackle better. I missed some tackles today that I have to make,” Kuechly said. “We’ll get that addressed. Everybody has to be in the right spot at the right time playing their right leverages.
Added cornerback Captain Munnerlyn: “We just had an off day. They ran through our tackles. We missed a lot of plays.”
With the run game established, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was able to use play-action to great effect. The Panthers defense was constantly on its heels as Ryan completed 23 of his 28 pass attempts and wasn’t sacked once. It's just the second time Carolina failed to record a sack in a game since December of 2015.
“When a team can run the ball, it opens up a lot of things for the offense,” Kuechly said. “They were able to play boot, they were able to play straight dropback. If you give them an opportunity to use their whole playbook it makes it hard on us.”
Rivera said Atlanta’s production on the ground directly contributed to Carolina’s inability to get after the quarterback in the pocket.
“You have to honor the play action,” Rivera said. “Kudos to them. They used play action to get the quarterback on the edges and that negates some of your rush.”
Fail to shut down the run, and the defensive issues begin to snowball, especially on the road against Atlanta’s wide array of weapons.
“We take pride in stopping the run and that’s one thing we just didn’t do today,” safety Mike Adams said. “I’m not pointing the finger saying, ‘Somebody missed this gap.’ As a defense, we just didn’t get it done.”