It was rough enough that the Carolina Panthers were busy Monday firing general manager Marty Hurney. The day was made much worse when the team was forced to place starting cornerback Chris Gamble on injured reserve.
Gamble injured his shoulder during Week 4’s game in Atlanta, according to the Charlotte Observer, and hasn’t been completely healthy since. The move ends Gamble’s season and devastates Carolina’s secondary.
Since the 2004 season, Gamble has been a rock in the Panthers defensive backfield. His 27 career interceptions were the most on the team over the past eight seasons, but it was the feeling of security on one side of the secondary that made Gamble’s presence special.
As bad as it could get on one side—Captain Munnerlyn gave up four touchdowns and 607 yards passing while in coverage in 2011, and opposing quarterbacks enjoyed a 126.9 passer rating throwing toward his side of the field—the Panthers were always set and safe on Gamble's side of the secondary.
Moving forward, that security blanket is gone.
Munnerlyn will likely slide in to fill Gamble's starting spot. Rookie Josh Norman will play on the other side after beating Munnerlyn and taking his job.
When Carolina moves into its nickel package, Josh Thomas will step in. Thomas played extensively in Week's 5 and 7 and hasn’t given up a touchdown, but he was targeted 11 times in his 40 passing snaps on the field, according to Pro Football Focus.
Carolina’s pass defense ranks 19th in the league, giving up 245.8 yards per game. By taking away Gamble and giving his snaps to a combination of Munnerlyn and Thomas, the Panthers could end up giving up even more yards per game.
Gamble, in 164 passing snaps, has given up eight receptions and 74 yards. In Thomas’ limited play of 40 passing snaps, he’s given up seven receptions and 48 yards.
As Thomas plays more and approaches the 164 snaps Gamble was on the field (see graph), he’ll potentially give up 29 receptions and 197 yards through the air. That extra yardage given up by Thomas could equate to nearly 40 yards per game Carolina hands to opposing offenses.
Adding an extra 40 yards through the air to Carolina's pass defense would push its ranking from No. 19 to No. 28. Looking at some of the other statistics provided by Pro Football Focus further hammers home this point.
When in coverage, Gamble gives up a reception every 20.5 plays. Munnerlyn is the next best on the team at 11.3 coverage snaps per reception. It gets really ugly at Thomas’ one reception for every 5.7 coverage snaps.
The sample size on Thomas is small, and it could likely improve. But what if it doesn’t?
The worst-case scenario is Thomas continues at the rate and skill level he’s shown filling in for Gamble this season. It's impossible to predict a best-case scenario, but does anyone really believe Thomas can be any better than Munnerlyn or Norman?
Carolina’s secondary is going to be attacked without Gamble in the game. If Munnerlyn, Norman and Thomas don’t step up in a big way, this Panthers defense is going to take a monumental turn for the worse.