The Atlanta Falcons hit the Carolina Panthers defense in the mouth on Sunday. Afterward, their coaches weren’t pulling any punches either.
Head coach Ron Rivera’s evaluation of the unit’s performance had him using words that rarely get applied to the Panthers defense.
“Terrible,” he said immediately after the game.
“A little lazy,” he said on Monday, after a chance to review the film.
With Falcons Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman out with an injury, the Panthers allowed backup Tevin Coleman to rush for 107 yards. Coleman was the first opponent to top the century mark on the ground against the Panthers since Seattle’s Thomas Rawls on Dec. 4, 2016, snapping a 21-game streak.
“We made too many mistakes,” Rivera said. “We didn’t give ourselves a chance. We have to be more disciplined than that.”
The Falcons had 170 rushing yards, more than the Panthers allowed in their last three games of last season combined.
“I’m a defensive head coach,” Rivera said, “and to have that happen — I will not stand for that. I will get that corrected.”
There are a few reasons for the Panthers’ uncharacteristic performance against the run on Sunday, and reasons to be optimistic that things will improve going forward.
The Panthers have experienced leaders on defense, most notably linebacker Luke Kuechly, who led the team with eight tackles and two tackles for loss.
The team has lost a great deal of leadership at the top, however. The Panthers are on their third defensive coordinator in as many years.
Sean McDermott, who arrived in Carolina with Rivera and led the defense for the previous six years, left prior to last season to become head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
Steve Wilks, a key assistant on McDermott’s staff for the previous five years, took over as coordinator last year and earned a head coaching gig with Arizona. That put Eric Washington at the helm of the defense. He also arrived at the same time as Rivera, but there’s still a continuity issue with so many new faces in the coordinator role in such a short span.
Still, Rivera isn’t grading on a curve.
“We have a standard,” he said. “This standard has been here since Sean McDermott was here with us, Steve Wilks was here with us and now Eric Washington, and we’re not going to tolerate it.”
Washington also didn’t use the losses of McDermott and Wilks as an excuse.
“One game does not change who we are,” he said. “We need to play faster, with more effort and with more energy.”
Both Rivera and Washington pointed out that the defense was slower than usual on Sunday, which they blamed for the sub-par performance.
“A couple of times, we were playing behind the play,” Rivera said.
“We just have to finish,” Washington said. “Play faster. Play ahead of the play instead of with the play.”
Thomas Davis, the team’s veteran linebacker who is known for his speed, has missed the first two games, serving a league suspension for a positive PED test. He’ll miss two more. The Panthers have tried to shuffle personnel to make up for the loss, but it’s likely a reason for the slowdown on defense.
Julius Peppers is another veteran known for his burst. The veteran has played limited snaps in the first two games, and the pass rush has felt his absence.
“He’s getting himself back into football shape,” Rivera said of the 38-year-old Peppers. “You typically play two-to-three games before you get your feet back under you. He’s at that point now.”
The fact that the team needs Davis and Peppers—who are a combined 73 years old—back in order to play at normal speed underscores another issue. The Panthers have been playing several young players on defense, which has led to some breakdowns.
Defensive backs Donte Jackson, Rashaan Gaulden and Corn Elder all saw time in the game, as did linemen Vernon Butler and linebackers Marquis Haynes and Jermaine Carter.
“We’re playing a group of young guys,” Rivera said. “We’re giving young guys opportunities on the football field, but that’s not an excuse. We have to make sure they’re coached up properly and put them in a position to be successful.”
That, again, falls on the new defensive coordinator.
“Experience is the best teacher,” Washington said. “But we’ve got to make sure we’re giving them the reps both on the practice field and in the meeting room.”
“We’re not going to dwell on it,” Washington added. “We’ll shore those things up, and you’ll see the Panthers defense you’re accustomed to seeing.”
And if not, you’ll see changes.
“We’ll put players on the field we believe are doing it our way and playing hard,” Rivera said.