Game on the line. Opponent pinned on their own 1-yard-line. They have no timeouts left and less than a minute on the clock. And they’re down by two. No chance they pull this out, right?
There has been a lot of discussion in the wake of Carolina’s heartbreaking 30-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
From Cam Newton’s inopportune fumble after fighting for a first down that would have sealed the game to Head Coach Ron Rivera’s decision to punt on the ensuing 4th-and-1, there has been no shortage of finger pointing by fans and analysts alike.
For all the blame games that are being played by the Carolina faithful in the wake of such a painful loss to a division rival, perhaps the most overlooked factor in the Panthers’ downfall is the defense.
Through the first four weeks of the season a defense that was expected to be much improved with the return of linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis has been nothing more than average and nothing less than terrible.
The lackluster performance of Carolina’s defensive unit has led to speculation that there will be some personnel changes to the starting lineup, most notably at the free safety position.
Let’s take a look at some of the Panthers defensive position groups and see how they fared against Atlanta.
As has been the case all season, the Carolina secondary was victimized again on Sunday, allowing over 300 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
Matt Ryan wasted no time in singling out the Panthers’ weakest coverage men and challenged them throughout the game with great success.
Josh Norman looked every bit a rookie while attempting to go man-to-man with veteran Roddy White, whose silky smooth route running and leaping ability shred both the Panthers’ press and zone coverage schemes.
Newcomer Haruki Nakumura did not fare much better, and may be looking on like the rest of us when the Panthers’ defense trots out to face the Seahawks next week.
Veteran Chris Gamble did a nice job of limiting the Falcons’ Julio Jones to one catch on the day, and strong safety Charles Godfrey held his own with five tackles and a broken up pass.
It was clear the Panthers’ coaching staff wanted to limit Jones and not give up the dink-and-dunk pass plays that have been the Falcons’ bread and butter for much of this season, hence the safeties playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
Give credit to Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense for recognizing the Panthers’ game plan and exploiting it with deep bombs to White (8 rec, 168 yds, 2 TDs).
At this point it’s obvious that rookie Josh Norman is going to have a learning curve, but the coaches seem to be pleased with the physical way he plays the game.
And why not? He has proven to be a much surer tackler than starting free safety Nakumura.
It’s hard to be optimistic about the undersized Nakumura after watching him whiff on so many balls in the air and simply be out muscled in the second line of defense week in and week out.
If he does not show significant improvement this week at practice, don’t be surprised to see Sherrod Martin back in the lineup on Sunday in hopes of bolstering a secondary that is giving up almost 260 yards per game through the air.
The most discouraging aspect of this unit’s performance on Sunday has to be the sloppy tackling.
Actually, sloppy tackling implies that the Panthers’ defenders were actually able to bring people to the ground, so that might be giving them too much credit.
Michael Turner looked like a man among boys once he got past the line of scrimmage, consistently powering through lazy arm tackles and turning what should have been short gains into first downs.
Beason has been dealing with knee and shoulder injuries the past couple of games, but he’s missed several tackles, overrun plays and been suspect in coverage.
Roddy White’s second touchdown grab of the day was as much Beason’s fault for not getting his head around in time as it was Haruki Nakumura’s for not playing the ball.
While Beason and Thomas Davis’ return from injury has been nice to see, fans have got to be disappointed thus far by a linebacking unit that was expected to be the strength of a revamped defense.
If the Panthers’ linebackers don’t significantly improve their fundamental tackling this week at practice, expect Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to have a field day on Sunday.
Fans, just hope there are no Skittles to be found in Bank of America Stadium.
As bad as the tackling and coverage was in the second level of the defense, the big boys up front sure came to play against Atlanta.
The Panthers’ pass rush tied a franchise record with seven sacks, and consistently generated pressure on Matt Ryan and the Atlanta backfield.
Defensive end Charles Johnson set the single-game franchise record with 3.5 sacks and proved too much for Atlanta right tackle Tyson Clabo to handle.
Johnson was not the only one forcing Ryan to hit the deck.
Greg Hardy, Ron Edwards, and rookie Frank Alexander all registered at least one sack in a dominating effort by the Panthers’ defensive line.
Unfortunately the team still gave up 121 yards on the ground, but Sunday was far and away the best performance by the Panthers’ defensive line since Julius Peppers left the team.
Journeyman Dwan Edwards has surprisingly provided a solid cog in the interior of the defensive line, so it will be interesting to see how the coaches handle the return of Andre Neblett from suspension when deciding the rotation for Sunday’s game.