Falcons at Panthers 1 p.m. Sunday, WRAZ, WFXI

Panthers' Nakamura on Falcons' game-changer: 'I didn't make the play'

Nakamura gave up game-changing pass reception on Sept. 30

jperson@charlotteobserver.comDecember 7, 2012 

— Panthers free safety Haruki Nakamura waited 10 weeks before watching the video of the first game against Atlanta.

There in the wide angle of the coaches’ tape, Nakamura watched himself back-pedal at the snap of the ball, then turn and run, too late, toward Falcons receiver Roddy White. Then he saw White go over him to catch a 59-yard pass that changed the game and, arguably, the Panthers’ season.

“Going back and watching that stuff – and I think even the coaches said – not all of it was my fault,” Nakamura said this week. “But at the same time, I was the person there to make the play.

“And I didn’t make the play.”

White’s catch moved the Falcons from their 1 to the Panthers’ 40, setting up Matt Bryant’s 40-yard field goal that gave Atlanta a 30-28 win in a wild, Week 4 matchup at the Georgia Dome.

In a subdued visitors locker room, Nakamura took the blame for the loss – the second in what would become a five-game losing streak for the Panthers.

Nakamura, who signed with the Panthers in the offseason after backing up Ed Reed for four years in Baltimore, was involved in seemingly every big play in the first meeting with Atlanta. He intercepted a Ryan pass at the goal line in the first quarter and broke up a pass in the end zone.

But he also gave up two first-half touchdown catches to White, and missed a tackle on Michael Turner’s 60-yard touchdown catch.

Nakamura’s breakdowns in coverage against the Falcons prompted Panthers coaches to use a platoon at free safety, with Sherrod Martin coming in on obvious passing downs.

But with Martin going on injured reserve this week with torn knee ligaments and strong safety Charles Godfrey questionable with a back issue, Nakamura returns to a full-time role – just in time for the rematch with the Falcons.

Nakamura, who could play closer to the line of scrimmage if Godfrey is out, said he will not go out of his way to try to make a big play as redemption for his Week 4 miscues.

“I’m not going to go out there saying, ‘I’m going to change the game.’ That’s not my job,” he said. “My job is to make sure big plays aren’t given up, to make sure we give ourselves a chance to win. We’ll see what happens at the end of the game.”

Nakamura said the Atlanta game taught him a hard lesson about not letting receivers get behind him. He believes he’s played better of late.

He is tied with Captain Munnerlyn for the team lead with two interceptions, and his 49 tackles rank eighth among Panthers defenders.

“I know outside of that game I’ve played well,” Nakamura said. “It was one game. I think the immediate effect of it, obviously it’s hard on you. But then you look at the body of work. I’ve done well, I’ve played well.”

Panthers players and coaches respect Nakamura for being accountable after the loss to the Falcons, but said he was not solely to blame.

“I appreciate that he’s a stand-up guy and wants to take the blame,” coach Ron Rivera said. “But it’s a team game and there’s 52 other guys.”

“He didn’t shy away from the situation after it unfolded. And that speaks volumes about how he is as a man and the character that he possesses,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott added. “I think he’s improved since that time.”

Cornerback Josh Norman, who had underneath coverage on Nakamura’s side on the long, last-minute pass to White, said the Panthers were expecting Ryan to throw a shorter, sideline route to try to pick up yards and stop the clock.

“That was one of those plays that you’ve got to tip your hat to them for calling it, executing it and Roddy going to get it. Because if he didn’t go get it, we wouldn’t be here talking about it or have a loss on your record,” Norman said. “It was just one of those plays that comes about once in a blue moon.”

Watching video of White’s catch wasn’t real enjoyable. But Nakamura said he has not dwelled on the play.

“I’ve put it out of my mind. I’ve moved on,” he said. “More disappointed because I did some things I know I don’t usually do. That’s just the bottom line. I know what kind of player I am.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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