CHARLOTTE -- When you're 8-2, sometimes you have to look under every rock for motivation.
So Carolina Panthers coach John Fox was actually pleased that several of his players took issue with their run defense, after their 31-22 win over Detroit.
"It's good that they have their bar raised pretty high," Fox said.
The Panthers have legitimate reason for concern, heading into this week's game at Atlanta, home of the league's second-ranked rushing game. The Panthers did an effective job of limiting the Falcons in September (118 yards on the ground for a team that averages 153.4), and will need to stay at that level to stay on the right side of the result.
There's no indication the Falcons have gotten any worse at running the ball, but the Panthers have clearly dipped in terms of stopping it.
Over the last two games against Oakland and Detroit -- teams with a combined 2-18 record -- the Panthers have given up 277 yards, and fallen from 14th in the league in rush defense to 18th.
That's eye-opening in part because of the way the Panthers opened the year stuffing the run.
In their first four, against some of the strongest ground games in the league, they allowed 114.3 yards per game and 4.12 yards per carry.
Considering they were playing against LaDainian Tomlinson, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson and Michael Turner (2007 rushing champ Tomlinson's the only one not in the league's current top 10), that's not bad.
Then they tightened up over the next four games, save the bleed-out against Tampa Bay. In that second quarter of the season, they gave up 85.5 yards per game and 3.80 per carry.
Now, the numbers are creeping up again, as the schedule toughens. After Atlanta this week, they go to Green Bay to visit Ryan Grant, who hit Chicago's sixth-ranked run defense for 145 yards and a touchdown Sunday. Then they still have to face Tampa Bay again, traditional running threat Denver and that date with the league's best rushing team (and perhaps team, period) the New York Giants in Week 16.
Fox said part of the most recent problem against the run was the fact they had put in some new packages with their defensive front which weren't ironed out. He emphasized that those were correctable mistakes, denying he saw any common thread in the last two games.
"This defense is about fitting, whether you're fitting right in (pass) coverage or whether you're fitting right in the run," he said. "We've done a little bit more defensively as far as moving the front and whatnot. It only takes one guy out of their gap, and sometimes it can cause a 5- or 6-yard gain. It's not like we've been awful.
"Two weeks ago, I think we (gave up) under 300 yards, and they were just over 300 yesterday. I thought we were way better in the second half yesterday. So we've just got to come out and start faster and we're going to need to do that this week against Atlanta. But all things are fixable, and overall I think that side of the ball has been pretty good."
Of more concern should be the tackling problems. Linebacker Thomas Davis said he was disappointed with the way they tackled against Detroit, allowing rookie Kevin Smith to become just the second individual 100-yard rusher they allowed all year (Tampa's Warrick Dunn was the other).
"I think the biggest thing for us, we didn't tackle well at all," Davis said after the game. "Go back and watch the film, I'm pretty sure the guy had probably 70 of his yards after contact. We've got to go back and correct that.
That's more of a physical challenge, a troubling one at that, considering what's before them.
"I think (Sunday) we started a little bit slow defensively," Fox said. "Again, it was more mental than physical, just as far as where we fit. We did a couple of different things movement-wise that we didn't fit perfectly, but they're all things that I think we can fix."