Panthers defensive coordinator Ron Meeks joined the coaching staff this season with a clear mandate: Improve a defense that broke down in the second half last season under former coordinator Mike Trgovac.
Two games into the 2009 season, Meeks and a few other new assistants have failed to make any discernible impact to the unit. In two losses the Panthers have allowed opponents to convert 11 of 25 third down attempts and score on six of seven trips inside the red zone. In other words, the unit has not made plays when it needs to.
The key drive in Sunday's loss to Atlanta was a microcosm of the defense's biggest problem. Trailing 10-7 in the second quarter, Atlanta drove 80 yards in 14 plays to take a lead it would never relinquish. The Falcons converted all four third downs they faced on the march, including three plays from identical formations. From my vantage point, it did not look like the Panthers did a poor job executing on any of those four plays. Tony Gonzalez made a great play for one conversion, while the Falcons simply took what the defense gave them on the other three. That's on the coaches, especially Meeks.
The drive was so important because, to that point in the game, the Panthers had been the more aggressive, better team. But the drive ignited a 21-3 Falcons run that put them on top 28-13 in the second half. The Panthers rallied, but had dug themselves too big of a hole to win.
Here is a breakdown of the key drive, focusing on the four third-down conversions:
Atlanta took over on its own 20 with 12:25 to play in the second. The Panthers had just regained the lead 10-7 on a 6-play, 80-yard march capped by DeAngelo Williams' 3-yard touchdown run. But for a blocked punt that gave Atlanta great field position in the first quarter, the Panthers were outplaying the Falcons. Atlanta moved to its 28 in two plays, setting up:
--Third and 2, Atlanta 28, 11 minutes to play in the second.
What happened: The Falcons lined up in the shotgun with three receivers, one back and a tight end lined up on the right side. The Panthers had four down linemen and one deep safety. Six other defenders were near the line of scrimmage. The tight end, Gonzalez, flared out right towards the sideline and made a sliding catch for 3 yards and a first down.
How it happened: The Panthers fell back into a zone. Nobody covered Gonzalez. When he caught the ball, the closest Panther was five yards away.
Conclusion: A conservative defense allowed Gonzalez and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to easily pick up the first down. Two Panthers were in the vicinity of Gonzalez, but they were so deep neither could make a play on the ball.
--Third and 4, Atlanta 37, 9:30 left in the second.
What happened: Atlanta lined up in the gun with three receivers, one back and a tight end. Sound familiar? The Panthers again lined up with four down linemen and one deep safety. Ryan fired a strike to Marty Booker for 26 yards.
How it happened: Booker lined up in the left slot, ran past a couple Panthers and found a hole in the zone. Ryan's pass was accurate. When Booker caught the ball, two Panthers were right behind him. Two more were in front of him.
Conclusion: This is the type of defense I am accustomed to seeing in my Saturday flag football league, not the NFL. Too soft. Falcons receiver Michael Jenkins was also open on the play, by the sideline. Perhaps the Panthers should have closed on Booker quicker than they did, but would that have stopped the play? I doubt it. It's the coaches' responsibility to put players in the best position to succeed. They did not.
--Third and 11, Panthers 37, 7:30 left in the second
What happened: Atlanta lined up again in the gun, with three receivers, one tight end and one back. This time the Falcons lined up in a slightly different formation, with one receiver positioned behind the tight end two yards off the line of scrimmage. The Panthers, uh, you know what they did. Ryan fired another bullet to an open Booker for 14 yards and another first down.
How it happened: This was possibly the biggest play of the game. Panthers defensive tackle Damione Lewis had just nailed Falcons back Michael Turner for a loss of 4 on the play before, pushing Atlanta to the brink of field goal range. Booker lined up in the left slot yet again. He found another hole in the zone, caught the pass at the 28 and ran a few yards before he was tackled by linebacker Thomas Davis. At the snap, Davis was lined up on the right side of Atlanta's offense. He quickly recognized it was his responsibility to cover Booker, but not even a linebacker that fast chasing a receiver that old (33) could sprint across the field in time to break up the pass.
Conclusion: If you wondered while watching this drive, 'I thought Marty Booker was retired, or even dead,' you were not alone. Yet there he was burning the Panthers' soft, confused zone defense for consecutive third-down conversions.
--Third and 7, Panthers 19, 6:14 left in the second
What happened: Yawn. The Falcons lined up in the gun, with three receivers, one tight end and one back. Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Panthers adjusted. By golly, a blitz on third down. They had four linemen and blitzed two defenders up the middle, putting one safety deep. Ryan threw early to his right for Gonzalez, who made a diving catch for 9 yards and a first down.
How it happened: Safety Charles Godfrey covered Gonzalez in man coverage and was right there when the ball arrived. But the pass was low and positioned where only Gonzalez could catch it. He made the catch. It's unclear what route Gonzalez ran to beat Godfrey (Thanks, FOX, for a replay).
Conclusion: A great play by Gonzalez and a smart play by Ryan beat solid, aggressive defense.
Two plays later Ryan connected with fullback Jason Snelling for a touchdown that put Atlanta up 14-10 with 5:10 to play in the second. The Falcons never trailed again, much to the enjoyment of all the fans in the Georgia Dome posing as empty seats.