Oldham Athletic manager Lee Johnson demanded more bravery from his players after a 3-1 home defeat to Preston North End sucked them deeper into relegation trouble.
The Latics dropped to 18th in the table and were outplayed by a high-flying Preston side who are now unbeaten in 10 league games.
North End led after six minutes as Chris Humphrey showed superb control before angling in a shot from 14 yards.
Oldham enjoyed a spell of pressure, but Preston doubled their lead in the 71st minute when Humphrey set up Joe Garner for a tap-in.
Gary Harkins pulled one back after 75 minutes with a fine shot into the top corner, but Johnson's side soon went down to 10 men as substitute Jonson Clarke-Harris was shown a straight red card for handling Garner's header on the goalline.
Garner's resulting penalty was brilliantly saved by Mark Oxley, but he bagged his second goal two minutes from time with a dipping 20-yard drive.
Johnson admitted: "It's fair to say we were outclassed.
"Credit where it's due because Preston are a really good side, but it's frustrating that we've started poorly in some of our recent home games.
"We had a go after half-time, but it's easy to play when you're behind because the opposition give you more room.
"You have to be brave and take the game on at 0-0, but not enough of our players did that.
"You can't be shrinking violets. This is an important time in players' careers and they need to stand up and be counted.
"There were times when I looked at some of them and saw worrying traits. Our confidence looked low, even on basic things like pass and control.
"You need to have a good day when you're facing a top side, but too many started with performances that were four or five out of 10.
"Preston fully deserved to win, but we are very disappointed."
Preston manager Simon Grayson hailed a "fantastic result" after his side maintained their bid for automatic promotion.
Grayson said: "We could have been out of sight at half-time if we'd been more ruthless in the final third.
"We knew this was a difficult game, but we passed it around well and stopped Oldham playing.
"At this stage of the season you have to grind out points. That's what we did and it's a fantastic result.
"Oldham put us under pressure at times because they are a good team, but our second goal came at the right time.
"There were good individual performances and I'm pleased for Chris Humphrey.
"He has been very productive down the right and worked extremely hard.
"You also need players who will score goals regularly and Joe Garner hits the target more often than not.
"Everyone gets carried away looking at fixtures, but we'll just win every game we can.
"If the teams around us drop points, we are in with a chance."