After loss in season opener, first question is Panthers' secondary

jjones@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 10, 2013 

The Carolina Panthers’ secondary entered the preseason as the biggest question mark for an otherwise stout defense hoping once again to rank among the NFL’s best.

After the season opener, the questions remain.

While the defense held Seattle to 12 points and three-time Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch to 2.5 yards per carry, Carolina’s secondary was a sieve. Russell Wilson had a career day with 320 passing yards and a 75.8 completion percentage despite strong, consistent pressure from the Panthers’ front four.

“He came out today, he threw the ball whenever he wanted to, and his receivers made plays,” starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said after Sunday’s 12-7 loss. “We’ve just got to work on that on defense. I think we only had one breakup in the back, and that’s not good being in the secondary. We’ve got to work on that, continue trying to get the ball out and make plays on the ball.”

The Panthers’ secondary did not create a turnover, had one pass defense via Quintin Mikell and tallied one sack by Charles Godfrey on a safety blitz that was essentially negated following a personal foul penalty.

After going the first quarter without a single play of 10 or more yards, Seattle’s offense finished with 16 plays registering at least 10 yards, and only two were rushes.

Carolina had the league’s worst opponent completion percentage last year at 66.8, and after Week 1 the Panthers are near the bottom again. Only Oakland and Chicago allowed a higher percentage by an opposing quarterback last week.

Of course, the Panthers were facing a quarterback known for his ability to escape pocket pressure and extend plays with his feet, something they’ll face again Sunday at Buffalo.

Rookie E.J. Manuel went 18-for-27 for 150 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and wasn’t sacked against New England. He also ran three times for 27 yards.

“I saw a lot of physical play,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of his secondary. “I saw them doing things you needed to. Unfortunately what happened was the quarterback’s ability to scramble and keep plays alive, extend plays. That’s the hard part. We put a lot of pressure on him. We hit him a lot. And you’d like to say if we can just get another step here, one more fraction of a second there, we’ve got him. Unfortunately, that’s kind of how it goes.”

Carolina led all NFL teams with 10 interceptions in the preseason, including four by Josh Norman. It wasn’t enough to earn Norman a starting job though, as the coaching staff selected third-year player Josh Thomas to start opposite Munnerlyn.

Thomas, who recorded five tackles Sunday, was exposed in the fourth quarter on consecutive deep balls. Wilson’s fourth-quarter sideline pass to Stephen Williams was just overthrown. But he came back the next play and connected with Jermaine Kearse for a 43-yard game-winning touchdown over Thomas, who failed to push the receiver inside to maximize help from the safety, Godfrey.

Wilson had the luxury of having gone up against one of the league’s best defensive backfields all preseason long. Seattle boasts one of the best defensive backfields in the league in Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Brandon Browner (who did not play Sunday.)

“The biggest thing I have learned is just trust what you see,” Wilson said Sunday. “We have arguably the best DBs in the National Football League, so to be able to go against them every single week and realize how tight those windows are, it helps.”

Working against Carolina’s secondary this year has been its inability to settle on a starting group. The secondary solidified early in training camp with Munnerlyn and veteran Drayton Florence at the corners and Godfrey and Mike Mitchell at safety. But the Panthers released Florence a week before the season started, and Mitchell has been sidelined with a calf injury.

The secondary’s Week 1 starters had five practices together before taking the field.

Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott didn’t point to a lack of continuity as the cause of the secondary’s woes, but McDermott said trust must be developed in the defensive backfield over time.

“There’s a chemistry that gets involved, in particular in the back seven because there’s a lot of communication that goes on,” McDermott said. “And because of that, they have to spend time in the film room together. You have to build a rapport and chemistry, and that comes from being beside one another for an extended period of time.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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