CHARLOTTE -- Once upon a time, the Carolina Panthers were good on defense.
That's looking more and more like a fairy tale now, after the Panthers allowed 67 points and over 700 yards the last two weeks, showing few signs of being the dominant group they once were.
Coach John Fox was asked Monday if the hard-to-look-at wins over Detroit and Oakland masked some of the defensive problems that bore fruit in Sunday's 45-28 loss at Atlanta.
In a classic bit of Fox press-conference double-speak, he answered, sort of.
"I don't know what you call problems," Fox replied. "Overall in our body of work, we've played pretty good defense and good enough to win eight games. Are the three losses problems? I guess. I really don't know how else to answer that."
Well several players admitted it after the game, with linebacker and defensive captain Jon Beason saying: "The last two weeks we played down to the level of our competition."
When facing better competition this week and playing the same sloppy style they had gotten away with before, they weren't up to the task.
The 45 points were the most allowed since Fox took over in 2002.
While this is the time of year it's hard to have big swings in rankings, the Panthers have been bad enough to move the meter.
In just two weeks, the Panthers have fallen from eighth to 11th in total defense, and from fourth to ninth in passing yards per game.
Most alarmingly, they went from second in the league in scoring defense to seventh in two weeks, and one of those was against Detroit -- which ranks 29th in scoring offense.
You could run down the litany of numbers all day. They allowed 708 yards the last two games, and for the third straight week surrendered more than 130 on the ground. The five rushing touchdowns Atlanta posted equaled what the Panthers had allowed in the previous 10 games.
"There's no explanation for it," Panthers safety Chris Harris said. "We've just got to play better. You do it against good teams and they make you pay for it, and this one did.
"It's a little frustrating. We haven't been able to stop anybody rushing-wise. Just something we've got to correct. We played well the first half of the season, but this is when we've got to buckle down and play our best, in late November and December. We've got to get it corrected before it's too late."
Fox wasn't going to concede that anything was wrong, given his team's 8-3 record. While he's likely hammering his team on the persistent parade of mistakes on that side of the ball, he's not going to show that hand to reporters, leading him to talk around issues.
Asked specifically about run defense, which several players, including Harris, termed "very frustrating," Fox wasn't biting.
"We won (two of) those games -- Oakland and Detroit," he replied. "There are a lot of ways to get yards in this game. This game is about points, and, unfortunately, yesterday we gave up 45 points. You're not going to win your share giving up 45 points. That I do know. Yesterday, obviously, there were some areas we've got to improve on. I thought in the second half we played a little bit better against the run. We've just got to start putting the two halves together."
To those who'd talk about it, the problems are real, tangible, and maddening for a group that took pride in what they had done so recently.
"You really can't look at stats or anything and say 'Hey, you know what, why are we starting slow?' I can't put a finger on it," Beason said. "We just need to start playing with a sense of urgency. Come out and play like we're losing, play like it's the fourth quarter, play like it's fourth and inches. That's the bottom line. Top to bottom, offensively defensive and special teams, we've got to play better.
"We can't go out there and throw down our helmets and expect people to lay down for us. That's just it."
Defensive tackle Damione Lewis described himself as "angry."
"When you consider yourself to be a good defense, 38 points, that's just not going to get it done," Beason said. "Offense scored 28. I don't care how bad they did, we should win the game -- 28 points is sufficient."
Lewis said the problem snowballs because of slow starts.
"We rely on being a pressure team and being able to play a lot of base defense and then allow the playmakers to make plays," he said. "We haven't been doing that. ... As ugly as it was, I don't think it was as bad as ti ended up in the box-score. I think we'll get in and watch film and see adjustments we should have made here and there.
"We're just not coming out fast, haven't been coming out fast the last few weeks. We can't worry about what Atlanta done or what Green Bay is going to do, we have to worry about ourselves and getting our motor started."
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