CHARLOTTE — The Panthers' defense played well enough to beat the Chargers on Sunday, generating four takeaways and allowing only 16 points. But even after a win, there can be critical corrections to make for the future.
Carolina does have some glaring defensive issues to address over the coming week. As head coach Matt Rhule pointed out, Austin Ekeler's 12-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was similar to Ronald Jones' 7-yard score at Tampa Bay.
"They got in the end zone against us, just a very simple play. We've got defenders there, they make us miss, touchdown — same thing happened last week," Rhule said.
The Panthers allowed a league-worst 31 rushing touchdowns last season, and that trend has continued through the first three weeks of 2020. Carolina's surrendered a league-worst seven rushing touchdowns, which puts the club on pace to allow just over 37.
That can improve quickly but will be tough to do against Arizona's formidable ground game this week. Going into Monday night, the Cardinals ranked seventh in the league with a 149.7 yards per game rushing average, though quarterback Kyler Murray is averaging 62.3 of that total.
More concerning overall for the Panthers might be the defense's numbers on third downs. The Chargers converted 10-of-15 attempts on Sunday, making opponents 24-of-37 (56.8 percent) on the season. Only the 0-3 Giants (58.1 percent) have been worse.
"We have to get off the field on third down," cornerback Rasul Douglas said. "But the biggest key is also winning first and second down. We can't allow it to be third-and-2 or third-and-3 the whole game, because you could get college teams to come out here and they'll convert on third-and-2."
Douglas has a point. Of the Chargers' 15 third downs, seven were third-and-5 or fewer, and nine were from third-and-6 or fewer. But Los Angeles converted all seven chances from five or fewer, and eight of their nine opportunities from six or fewer. Quarterback Justin Herbert's second touchdown pass also came on third-and-14, so just increasing the distance needed won't solve everything.
Overall this season, 24 of the defense's 37 third downs have been for six or fewer yards. On those 24 plays, the Panthers have allowed 19 first downs — a conversion rate of 79.2 percent.
For comparison's sake, Arizona is one of the best teams in the league at this. The Cardinals are No. 2, limiting opponents to a 28.6 conversion rate on third down. On third-and-6 or fewer, Arizona has allowed only 5-of-18 conversions.
There's undoubtedly a medium between the two extremes. The Panthers aren't going to turn elite in the category overnight, and that would be an unfair expectation. But even after a win, it's a clear place for the defense to target immediate improvement.
BACKUP TACKLES COME THROUGH
Left tackle Russell Okung (groin) could not play in L.A., so the Panthers had 2019 second-round pick Greg Little and recently acquired Trent Scott split time at the position. Upon reviewing the film, Rhule liked how both players performed.
"That was the key to the game, in my mind, on offense," Rhule said.
Little played in four games and started three for Carolina after he was a second-round pick in 2019, but missed most of the season due to various injuries. He started on Sunday and was in for 20 of the offense's 51 snaps.
"Greg Little went out and was ready for the challenge," Rhule said. "Really proud of Greg. I think this is what Greg needed. He needed to get in there and play."
Scott arrived in Week 1 after spending the last two seasons with the Chargers under now-Carolina offensive line coach Pat Meyer. The familiarity paid off as Scott played the other 31 offensive reps.
"When he got waived (earlier this month), Pat came to us and said, 'I'm just telling you, you guys are going to love this guy,' and we certainly do," Rhule said.
Aside from the two sacks, the Chargers did not record a quarterback hit against Bridgewater, a testament to some solid protection.
"Those two tackles, they're playing against (Joey) Bosa. They're playing against some really good players," Rhule said. "I thought (offensive coordinator) Joe (Brady) did a great job — our tight ends, our running backs, they chipped and helped our tackles out."
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Rhule revealed on Monday that Douglas was the catalyst for last week's team meetings when players shared their "why" in an attempt to help players get to know each other better.
"I called him. I wanted to talk to him one-on-one, personally, because that's the type of coach he is," Douglas said. "I had to just tell him how I felt about it, and I wanted us to play for each other because it's bigger when you play for the team than the individual.
"We're not track runners, we're not boxers, so individual stuff doesn't matter. It's all about the team. It's what can we do together, collectively."
Douglas was a member of the 2017 Super Bowl-winning Eagles, so he knows firsthand what being a connected team can do.
"Even though most of all of us play for a different team now, we still all talk, and it's still the same thing," Douglas said.
Not only did the Panthers win on Sunday, but Douglas could tell there was a different level of performance when comparing the Week 2 and Week 3 film.
"The D-line, the linebackers, everyone was hunting. Hair on fire, running to the ball, tackling, covering — everything was kind of like we put it all together. And for spurts, it was just like, 'Oh my goodness, we're … good.'
"I just think everybody took the self out — ego, pride, everything out — and played for each other, and it showed on film."
BUILDING WITHOUT THE 'RE'
Rhule has been consistent in saying the Panthers are building something. But there's a difference in what people hear and think when it comes to "building" versus "rebuilding."
Calling a season a "rebuilding year" draws a negative connotation, similar to tanking. It's going to make people think an organization is, in some ways, trying to lose. That's completely the opposite of who Rhule is and how he operates as a coach.
"I would like to think that if (players are) around me every day, they know that I want to win," Rhule said.
As Rhule put it, he inherited a team that was coming off a pair of losing seasons, which means things weren't going well. There was significant roster turnover in the offseason, and now the goal is to continue stacking blocks and growing together. That may take time because there's a process to make it happen.
It starts with getting the right people in place, and Rhule feels like the organization has done so. The second step is to establish some core principles.
"People win in a lot of different ways. We want to be a tough, hard-working, competitive group," Rhule said. "Then, you want to get the football right."
The Panthers are working on that part now, with Rhule saying it's not right yet. But especially coming off a win, now is the time to continue investing in the build.
"We don't panic when we lose, and we don't act like everything is easy when we win," Rhule said. "If you do that, then you have a chance."
View the best photos from behind the scenes of Carolina's win over the Chargers in Week 3.