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The Day After: Run defense needs to improve against Falcons

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CHARLOTTE — With the Falcons coming to town on a short week, there isn't much time for the Panthers to dwell on Sunday's loss to the Saints.

But one area that carries relevance for both contests is Carolina's run defense.

Overall, the Panthers rank 18th after allowing 868 rushing yards through Week 7. But the club is No. 28 in giving up 4.9 yards per carry.

The Saints nearly reached that number Sunday, amassing 138 yards on the ground on 29 attempts. That works out to a 4.8-yard average. Running back Alvin Kamara led the way with 83 yards on 14 carries. Latavius Murray did his share of damage, too, racking up 47 yards on 11 runs.

Head coach Matt Rhule has noticed similarities in weeks where the Panthers' run defense struggled.

"Some games, like against the Bears, we've had really good run defense," Rhule said. "We're a one-gap defense, so it's pretty simple: Everybody get in your gap, defend your gap, and there's nowhere to run the football. And it's just a guy getting out of his gap, a guy leaving his gap too early, and plays hitting."

Kamara's longest run was 32 yards, though he also gashed Carolina's defense for an 18-yarder. Murray had a 25-yard run as well.

Those are the kinds of plays that usually happen when a team isn't playing gap-sound defense.

"(There were) too many, 'Hey, my bad' plays that popped," Rhule said. "We all have to get a little bit better this week in terms of just handling our responsibility."

The Panthers had similar issues with the Falcons in Week 5. Though Carolina won that game, the Falcons averaged 6.9 yards per carry en route to 166 total yards rushing. Todd Gurley led the way with 14 carries for 121 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown in the first quarter.

Gurley is a former NFL Offensive Player of the Year and a two-time All-Pro. But that was the first time he'd recorded 100 yards rushing in a regular-season game since he was with the Rams in 2018. In Atlanta's two games since facing the Panthers, Gurley has totaled 110 yards on 43 carries, averaging 2.6 yards per attempt.

Still, as the Panthers found out, Gurley can stress a defense.

"He can get the defense committing in one gap and bounce to the next gap," defensive end Brian Burns said. "That's something he does very well, especially with the blocking scheme they've got going on, he can really sell one gap that you think he's about to hit and bounce right out of it and make a big play."

That means the Panthers have to eliminate those "my bad" mistakes if they're going to improve against Gurley the second time around.

"You can't get too nosy. You can't feel like you have to make every play," Burns said. "That's something I have a problem with sometimes, I feel like I've got to make every play. But as long as you do your job and just stay disciplined in your gaps, don't allow anyone to take you out your gap, or you being nosy take you out your gap, everything should be fine, in my opinion."

That plays into Carolina's biggest defensive issue from Sunday's loss: third down. The Panthers set a single-game franchise low in defensive third-down efficiency, allowing an 85.7 percent conversion rate. Of New Orleans' 14 third-down attempts, nine were from third-and-6 or fewer. The Saints also converted 2-of-4 third downs with at least 10 yards to go.

"(T)he main key of how you win third down is to win first and second," Burns said. "We got into a lot of third-and-4, third-and-2, those are hard to keep them from getting the first down. So we've really got to concentrate on first and second (down).

"And when we do get into third-and-longs, we have to get off the field. Rush, coverage, everything included, everybody's got to work together to get off the field because we just can't allow 12-of-14 (third-down conversions). That's just unacceptable."

The Panthers are missing pieces on the defensive front, but they have to find a way to replicate their success against the Bears when they allowed only 63 yards rushing. If Atlanta can't gash Carolina's defense with Gurley, then the unit will have a better shot at getting the ball back to the offense.

Carolina is 19-32 all-time against Atlanta.

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