Carolina Panthers’ patchwork secondary proves first-rate

jjones@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 22, 2013 

Six days before Sunday’s 38-0 win against the New York Giants, Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said he was a little lost.

Three days before Carolina handed the Giants their worst loss in the Tom Coughlin era, Ron Rivera admitted he was concerned about his secondary.

After Carolina got its first victory of the season and Eli Manning had his worst passing game of the season, a patchwork Panthers secondary with two undrafted rookies getting significant playing time proved its doubters wrong.

“We don’t have any big-name guys, but I believe in everybody we have in the room,” starting free safety Mike Mitchell said. “I thought this week we were able to show that. We played as a team, we played together.

“We knew we had our backs against the wall. When you’re in a tough situation like that, you’re going to find out what kind of man you are, what kind of group you have, everyone’s going to raise up to that next level or you’re going to fold.”

The Panthers coaching staff said all week the defense’s front seven would have to play well with the secondary’s uncertainty. Four Panthers defensive backs were injured in last Sunday’s loss at Buffalo, shaking up a unit that already was statistically among the worst in the league.

Starting free safety Charles Godfrey was lost for the year with a torn Achilles, starting strong safety Quintin Mikell missed Sunday with an ankle injury and starting cornerback Josh Thomas did not pass the concussion protocol on Friday. On top of that, defensive back D.J. Moore sat out Sunday with a knee sprain, leaving Carolina with seven healthy defensive backs.

The Panthers held Manning to 12-for-23 passing for 119 yards and one interception. Backup Curtis Painter had two completed passes, and the Giants had seven sacks for minus-45 yards, finishing with a net of 135 passing yards.

“You’d like to have your starters at the beginning of the season out there,” Rivera said, “but I felt very good about what happened with the pass rush so I thought if we could get some pressure ... we could help those guys, and they pretty much helped themselves.”

The Panthers signed 11-year veteran cornerback Drayton Florence, a starter with Carolina in the preseason before getting cut in August, last week after the spate of injuries. Rivera moved Mitchell to free safety and started undrafted rookie Robert Lester at strong safety.

Fellow undrafted rookie Melvin White played at corner when the Panthers went to nickel, and in the third quarter he registered his first career interception on a Victor Cruz slant.

White said the defensive backs talked on the sideline about trapping the receiver when the Giants lined up in a specific formation. It was communication that failed the defensive backs the previous week when the Panthers gave up a last-minute, game-winning touchdown.

“Once we got up there they lined up in it and Mike Mitchell gave the signal and said trap it,” White said. “Then Captain signaled to me, and we were all on one page.

“I just came through and made the play on the ball.”

White forced a Louis Murphy fumble early in the fourth quarter, and Lester recovered at the Carolina 30. Lester almost intercepted Manning with 3 minutes left but couldn’t come up with the ball.

Painter replaced Manning on the Giants’ final drive, and in an attempt to get points on the board, Painter threw an interception right to Lester, a three-time national champion at Alabama who didn’t get the call he was expecting during draft weekend.

“I’m trying to prove a point. I’ve been doubted since I came to the league. I guess they don’t think I can play in the league and I’m here to prove to them otherwise,” Lester said. “Carolina gave me the opportunity to go out there and show them, and they got many more plays like that coming for them.”

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

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