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Next (healthy) man up in Panthers’ defensive backfield

By Jonathan Jones
jjones@charlotteobserver.com

If the Carolina Panthers would have suffered another injury to a safety Sunday at Buffalo, the coaching staff was considering moving linebacker Thomas Davis to the position he hadn’t played since his 2005 rookie year.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said if another corner went down, reserve running back Armond Smith was the next man up.

That was the reality of the Panthers’ secondary Sunday afternoon in the 24-23 loss to the Bills, and a day later MRIs and x-rays revealed just how dire the situation is for the Panthers (0-2) at one of their weakest positions.

Free safety Charles Godfrey is done for the season after an Achilles injury suffered on a third-quarter pass breakup. Strong safety Quintin Mikell suffered an ankle sprain and will undergo further tests this week.

Fellow strong safety Mike Mitchell has battled a calf injury since the preseason, and cornerback/safety D.J. Moore said he believes he suffered an MCL sprain on Sunday.

For the cornerbacks, Josh Norman said he sprained his MCL and has deep thigh contusions. Starting cornerback Josh Thomas suffered a concussion and his status this week is unknown.

Munnerlyn is the only healthy starter remaining.

“Yeah, unfortunately I am,” Munnerlyn said. “But we’ll be OK. Next man up.”

There aren’t many men left to come up, though.

“Yeah, I know,” Munnerlyn said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do right now. Kind of lost. Hopefully we’ll know by Wednesday.”

What will the Panthers do with their secondary Sunday when the New York Giants come to town? The short answer is: They don’t know yet.

Ron Rivera spoke with general manager Dave Gettleman on Monday morning about whether to bring in a player from outside the building or potentially work with the remaining healthy bodies on the 53-man roster and practice squad.

Rivera said it may be secondary “by committee” and pointed to undrafted rookie Melvin White – who has been inactive the first two games – and James Dockery – who’s coming off thumb surgery but hopes to play Sunday – as potential help at cornerback.

At safety, Rivera expects Mitchell to be start with either Moore or Colin Jones, the team’s emergency safety entering Week 2, at the other safety position.

“I pride myself on playing special teams, but I’m here to help the team in any way that I can,” Jones said. “If that’s where it may be, that’s what I’ll go do.”

The myriad injuries Sunday forced the Panthers out of their nickel coverage for nearly a half-quarter, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. Munnerlyn said Buffalo recognized Carolina’s injuries and adjusted for them.

The Bills lined up in 11 personnel – one running back, one tight end and three receivers – at times during the third quarter. And that forced the Panthers to use a linebacker on a slot receiver. Carolina’s depleted secondary yielded 194 passing yards by EJ Manuel on 17-of-24 passing in the second half.

Through Sunday’s games, the Panthers secondary was 22nd in the NFL in passing yards allowed with 578 and next-to-last in the league in opponent completion percentage at 72.2.

It wasn’t even a year ago that the Panthers had experienced players in Godfrey, Munnerlyn and now-retired Chris Gamble in the secondary, with promising young talent on the depth chart. Two weeks into this season, it would be difficult for the Panthers to be any more shallow.

“I still consider myself a young guy, but it ain’t nothing young about me anymore,” fifth-year veteran Munnerlyn said. “I’m like the oldest guy in the group, been here the longest. I got to step up and be that leader we need in the secondary and get everybody on the same page and get the ball rolling. We got to stop losing games like this and hopefully we can turn the season around.”

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