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Panthers’ struggles traced to NFL-worst 3rd-and-long defense during losing streak

It was an optimistic way to look at a game that didn’t inspire much optimism, but Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington took pride in the number of third-and-long situations his defense forced during their 20-19 loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 11.

Carolina forced Detroit into 11 third downs with at least seven yards to go, surpassing the 10 such situations it forced Dallas into in Week 1. Detroit only converted three of those attempts — the problem was, all three conversions led to touchdowns.

Performances like that are a microcosm of Carolina’s four-game losing streak.

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Carolina Panthers defensive back Captain Munnerlyn (41) looks up at the video scene to watch the replay of a 43-yard pass play to put the Seattle Seahawks at the Panthers 10-yard line late in the game at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, November 25, 2018. Seattle won 30-27.

David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

That wasn’t always the case. During their 6-2 start, the Panthers forced opponents into 49 third-and-long situations, defined as a third down with at least seven yards to gain — the 11th-fewest in the NFL. They took full advantage of those situations when they came, however, allowing a first down just 18.4 percent of the time — the second-best mark in the league.

“That helps us out. You study film and you know team’s tendencies, what they like to do on third-and-long,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “It helps the d-line a lot, too. It lets them rush and get after the quarterback.

“It’s a collective (effort). We’ve all got to do our job.”

In its past four games, Carolina’s defense has excelled at getting into favorable third down situations but its execution has tanked.

Since their losing streak began in Week 10, the Panthers have forced 32 third-and-longs — the second-most in the NFL during that span. The 12 first downs they allowed in those scenarios lead the league, however, as do the four touchdowns their opponents scored..

Remarkably, none of those plays resulted in a turnover.

The root cause for this about-face lies within a secondary that was one of the league’s best through the first nine weeks of the season.

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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera grabs his headset mic while tucking his head during a moment of the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, December 2, 2018. The Buccaneers won 24-17.

David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Panthers allowed seven passing plays of 15 yards or more on third down during those first nine weeks — the fourth-fewest in the NFL. Since then, they lead the league with 11 such plays.

It’s likely one reason why head coach Ron Rivera decided to fire assistant secondary/cornerbacks coach Jeff Imamura, take over playcalling duties and assume more responsibility over the team’s secondary.

“I wouldn’t say there was a final straw,” Rivera said Monday. “I would just say that it was something from watching and looking, I just think that this puts me in the middle of everything as far as the defense is concerned, working with Eric and continuing to grow this defense as we move forward.

“My background has always been in the back seven so it’s an opportunity for me to help out and get involved there as well.”

As speculation swirls whether Rivera is coaching for his job over the season’s remaining four games, he justifiably hasn’t confirmed or denied the desperation behind his latest staffing changes. But there is no doubt Rivera took over the obvious weakest link on the Panthers’ weakest unit.

And clearly, he believes he’s the man to fix it.

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