CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers figured out exactly what went wrong for their defense last week against Houston.
"We just didn't play good overall; it was one of those games you really want to forget," safety Chris Harris said. "We pretty much didn't do anything right that game."
The problem the Panthers face is that everyone's going to want a copy of the tape to figure out how to play them.
"I'm pretty sure they will," Harris said. "It's a copycat league. If something works for other teams, I'm pretty sure you'll see other teams incorporate it if you didn't play well the week before."
Houston pecked the Panthers to death more than anything else, with the majority of passes going to backs and tight ends (12) rather than receivers (eight). Fullback Vonta Leach and tight end Owen Daniels had 10 receptions, more than all the wideouts combined.
St. Louis never really tried the Panthers' brand-new safeties, throwing two of its 22 passes to tight ends, and the consensus among some scouts who saw that tape was the opportunities were there.
The Texans also put a premium on getting the ball out quickly to take the Panthers' pass rush out of the game, and used bootlegs and misdirection to keep the Panthers off-balance. But as Harris said, whatever they did seemed to work -- their timing was impeccable and the Panthers' was off all day.
Even when they threw the kitchen sink at them, the Texans won. On Ahman Green's 13-yard, untouched touchdown run, the Panthers were in an all-out blitz, meaning Green needed just one crease to cruise into the end zone.
Similarly, the plays that kept the chains moving weren't the kind that end up in the highlights. Houston tied the game on a 16-play drive and went ahead on a 10-play march, using Daniels and Leach for the dirty work so flashy wideout Andre Johnson could score the touchdowns.
Safety Deke Cooper said much of the credit should go to Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, who had the discipline the Panthers lacked. Cooper said that in the cover-2 shell the Panthers played much of the day, short areas were going to be open and Schaub took them.
"I mean, that's the kind of things teams do to us," Cooper said. "We run a lot of cover 2, so he kind of took what we gave him. I think he threw one deep ball. He didn't really try to do more than we were giving him. That's kind of the frustrating thing about cover 2, it's kind of dink-dink-dink, that's the weakness of the defense.
"We're a real good cover 2 team, and we just had a few breakdowns. I'm definitely glad it happened early in the season, so we see what we need to fix."
The Panthers stayed in the defense in part because they're still figuring out who they can trust in the back. The safety position has been in flux since the offseason, and it appeared they were trying to keep everything in front.
But to a man, all the linebackers and safeties who had a hand in not stopping the short game said the problems were correctable.
"They had a good game plan and they executed it," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "If we'd have executed our game plan a little better, a lot of that stuff would have been null and void."
The Panthers would be wise to expect a similar attack this week. Atlanta QB Joey Harrington's not the most mobile but he can move the pocket, and he's an accurate passer who can find small spots. The Falcons also have a Pro Bowl tight end in Alge Crumpler, though he hasn't made much noise against them in recent years.
Basically, they knew Crumpler was Michael Vick's security blanket, so much of their defense was designed to neutralize him.
They said the key for them against the Falcons, and the rest of the year, will be staying true to their own defensive principles and not letting what Houston did become a trend.
"Teams are going to find different ways to try to aggravate you to try to win the ballgame," veteran defensive end Mike Rucker said. "And what they'll do, they'll play-action, dump the ball off fast, as one way to try to nullify that. If you're not sound in your defense, that's where you allow them to nit-pick you. You might play two plays really good, and all of a sudden, you might let them have some junk that gets them a first down.
"There's going to be some time or another that there's an opportunity you have to pounce on."
• Panthers notebook • 4C