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NFL: Panthers need to shore up declining defense

Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó The Carolina Panthers defense is hemorrhaging points and looking for answers, this just three weeks after being one of the NFL’s top-rated units.
Huge gaps have suddenly opened up in the running lanes. Coverage miscues are on the rise. They’ve been peppered with short passes and can’t seem to get off the field.
“It’s been frustrating,” safety Chris Harris said. “It’s something we’ve got to correct. Playing in December, giving up 31 points is going to get you beat.”
The Panthers were able to win 35-31 Sunday at Green Bay despite allowing the Packers to hold the ball for nearly 38 minutes. They weren’t as fortunate a week earlier in a 45-28 loss to Atlanta. They survived three weeks ago against winless Detroit 31-22.
The defense has slipped from second in the league in points allowed at 14.8 per game to seventh at 19.2. They’ve dropped to 11th in the league in yards allowed, bringing concern as they prepare to face Tampa Bay on Monday in an NFC showdown of 9-3 teams.
“We’re going back and watching the film,” said linebacker Jon Beason, the team’s leader with 124 tackles. “We’re making a lot of mistakes, things we didn’t do the beginning of the season.”
Through the first nine games, the Panthers were impressive. They held Atlanta without a touchdown, shut out Kansas City, held New Orleans to seven points and Oakland to two field goals.
But the Raiders’ game was the start of a troubling trend against the run. After not allowing LaDainian Tomlinson, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson and Michael Turner to reach 100 yards rushing in the first four weeks, the Panthers have allowed at least 130 yards on the ground in four straight games.
Other areas have slipped, too. Tackling was poor against Atlanta. While they wrapped up better against Green Bay, the Panthers’ secondary struggled, with Aaron Rodgers throwing for 298 yards by using the short pass, and picking on defensive backs Ken Lucas and Charles Godfrey. There were several occasions where linebackers and defensive backs converged on the same player, leaving another receiver open.
But perhaps the most frustrating aspect has been time of possession. The Packers converted 8 of 16 third-down chances and had a field-goal drive that lasted more than nine minutes. Atlanta converted 6 of 13 third downs a week earlier and Carolina allowed two TD drives of more than five minutes. The Lions held the ball for more than 34 minutes the week before that.
The Panthers have allowed five scoring drives lasting more than six minutes in the past three games.
“To get a team to third down is good, but when it’s third-and-4, third-and-5, it’s manageable, easier to pick it up,” Beason said. “They have the option to run and throw. If we can force Tampa into some third-and-longs, we can get off the field.”
Next up for the Panthers’ struggling D is their old nemesis. Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia has won five straight starts against Carolina, with nine touchdown passes and three interceptions. Mobile enough to often avoid pressure from Julius Peppers ó voted the NFC’s defensive player of the month Thursday ó Garcia has carved up the Panthers in the past with short passes in the West Coast offense.
“Jeff Garcia’s playing the best he has his whole career,” Beason said.
For the past two weeks, the Panthers have picked up the pace in practice. Some players have said they haven’t been ready when teams using the no-huddle offense have snapped the ball.
It’s created an interesting dynamic. In public, coach John Fox has insisted he’s unconcerned with the defense.
“It’s playing well enough to be 9-3,” Fox said.
But the players know that record won’t hold up if they don’t stop the leaks on what they still think is a solid unit.
“We’ve just got to refocus and continue to do those little things we were doing Week 1 through 9,” Harris said. “We need to continue to do that in order for us to have success.”
Notes: Peppers became the second straight Panther to win the NFC monthly defensive award after Beason was honored in October. Peppers has seven sacks in his past four games. … LB Na’il Diggs was limited in practice after suffering cramps in his quadriceps. … Reserve LB Adam Seward (ankle) and DE Hilee Taylor (calf) missed practice for a second straight day.

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