CHARLOTTE – Throughout last season, the Panthers defense made stopping the run and getting to the quarterback look easy.
Despite the defense's surprising change of fortune the last two Sundays, the solution is easy according to the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
"Stopping the run is simple," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "If you're not in your gaps, they are going to rush you. If you're in your gaps, they can't run the ball. It's cliché, and as easy as it sounds, that's what it comes down to."
The Panthers looked powerless to stop the Baltimore Ravens offense Sunday. One year after ranking second in the NFL against the run, the Panthers have slipped to 27th after a second consecutive struggle – surrendering 391 yards on the ground over the last two games. And one year after leading the NFL with 60 sacks, Carolina didn't sack quarterback Joe Flacco a single time as he set a franchise record with a 137.4 quarterback rating.
It all goes hand-in-hand, according to head coach Ron Rivera, and it all must change quickly if the Panthers are to right the ship. The good news is that it can.
"A lot of their throws were coming out in under two seconds. Why?" Rivera asked. "What happens (when you give up yards on the ground) is that you're no longer looking at second-and-long, third-and-long. You're looking now at second-and-short, third-and-short, and the ball can come out very quickly.
"I am concerned about the pass rush, but to be honest with you right now, my biggest concern is the undisciplined play against the run."
After reviewing film of Sunday's 38-10 loss to Baltimore, Rivera said he could easily identify 14 Ravens run plays where at least two defensive players were out of position. Facing earlier deficits like the one created Sunday by a touchdown on a tipped pass that caused the Panthers to play catch-up all day, a defense known for being aggressive and disciplined has fallen into being aggressive minus the discipline.
"Sometimes, it's just pressing, just pushing and trying to make something happen. One or two bad things happen, and now you start pressing to make the play," Rivera said. "When a team gets up on you a little bit, you start thinking, 'Hey, we just need to make a play. Somebody step up and make a play.'
"You see a chance to run through. You know you shouldn't run through, but you run through. Now all a guy has to do is bump you and go to the next level. Now there's a huge running lane."
A week after the Steelers became the first team in more than a year to have a 100-yard rusher against the Panthers (they actually had two), a Ravens team staked to an early lead used the same formula. Even with top two running backs entering the season out of action, they featured a patient running style that allowed Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro to combine for 124 yards and score a touchdown apiece.
"We understand that this is how teams are trying to attack us, through ball control and not turning the ball over, because they understand what momentum we get off of turnovers," safety Roman Harper said after the Panthers failed to force a turnover for the second consecutive game. Carolina had forced six turnovers in the first two games.
"We have to understand that and try to defend that," Harper said. "Especially on a team that prides itself on being a physical team, we have to play better against the run."
The good news is the Panthers, as they showed all of last season and the first two weeks of this season, are capable of playing the run better.
They just have to get back to it.
"It's a combination of missed assignments and missed tackles - just stuff we can correct," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "That's the best part about it. We can correct it, and it's on us to correct it if we plan on going where we want to go.
"At the end of the day, there isn't anything to talk about. It's just something we have to go out and do."