CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Panthers believe they've found a pass rush. Now they just need to shore up their secondary.
Despite Carolina's 12 sacks on the season — including a franchise-record seven against Atlanta last Sunday — the defensive backfield remains an issue.
The Panthers are giving up 259 yards passing a game. And they allowed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to throw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in a heartbreaking 30-28 loss, including a 59-yard completion to Roddy White to set up the game-winning field goal.
"We need a game where as a collective group where we play four quarters," said defensive end Charles Johnson, who had 3½ sacks against the Falcons. "We need to be good on third-down situations, create turnovers and in the red zone. And we can't give up the big play. Every week it's something different with us."
They may get just the break they need Sunday when they host not-so-pass-happy Seattle.
Led by rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seahawks rank last in the league in passing, averaging just 130.8 yards per game.
Still, the Panthers must avoid giving up the big play — something that has plagued them all season.
Carolina's secondary has surrendered 14 passing plays of 20 or more yards, including completions of 60, 59, 49 and 30 yards this past week.
Despite the struggles, coach Ron Rivera has no plans to change the starting lineup, not even free safety Haruki Nakamura who has struggled more than others.
Nakamura misplayed White's long catch in the game's final minute leading to Matt Bryant's field goal and had a hand in allowing three other touchdowns and is sure to have a target on his chest when Wilson and the Seahawks take the field in Charlotte on Sunday.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called Nakamura into his office on the players' day off Tuesday to tell him that while his effort wasn't good enough, he's keeping his job.
"I made some big mistakes during the game and unfortunately it changed the outcome," Nakamura said. "I have to put the work in to change that."
"There were 164 plays in that game. There were not 163 perfect ones," Rivera said. "The guy (Nakamura) had an interception in the red zone. The guy knocked away a ball in the end zone. To do a complete turnaround and shut him down, I don't know if it's warranted."
Rivera said not all of the errors were Nakamura's fault.
"As you're watching the tape and knowing what we're doing and what we're trying to do, there's more than one way to look," Rivera said.
So what did Nakamura learn from Sunday's game?
"Don't be stupid, first of all," he said. "You look at that situation and we have them back up on the 1-yard line. You play deeper. There's only one way they can get downfield and that's the deep and unfortunately I played it the wrong way."
The Panthers secondary could catch a break Sunday after opening the season against four veteran quarterbacks in Josh Freeman, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Ryan.
This week they face Wilson, the Seahawks' third-round draft pick this year.
Wilson, who began his college career at North Carolina State and later played minor league baseball briefly in Gastonia — about a 20-minute-drive from where the Panthers play their home games — said he expects a stiff challenge from Carolina's defense.
"They have a tremendous front seven and they can really get to the quarterback," Wilson said. "We have to be able to block it out and get the ball out on time."
"The defensive line played Sunday about as good as they've played the last two seasons," Rivera said. "The energy they helped bring to the defense was tremendous."
Rivera said that raises the bar for this week against a Seattle team that has allowed eight sacks.
"I told the guys you put it out there now, you showed what you're capable of so there's no reason not to do it every week," Rivera said. "So we'll see how they respond."
NOTES: LB Jon Beason, DE Frank Alexander, OL Geoff Hangartner, CB Chris Gamble and SS Colin Jones did not practice Wednesday for the Panthers. Rivera said he's most concerned about the availability of Beason, Hangartner and Gamble on Sunday.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company