The Carolina Panthers’ defensive backs have heard about the “Legion of Whom” nickname ESPN analyst Jon Gruden dropped on them during the “Monday Night Football” game against New England two weeks ago.
It was a clever takeoff on Seattle’s so-called “Legion of Boom” secondary that played on the anonymous nature of a Carolina defensive backfield cobbled together through a mixture of veteran castoffs, undrafted rookies and an undersized cornerback.
Gruden’s slight hardly fazed the Panthers’ defensive backs, who have worn the us-against-the-world mentality like a badge of honor since the preseason, when local and national pundits first pointed to the secondary as the lone chink in the defense’s armor.
It turns out the defensive backs already had their own nickname.
“We just call each other the No-Name Secondary. That’s why we take pictures sometimes with our backs turned, pointing to our names,” said Captain Munnerlyn, the aforementioned, diminutive corner.
“I think Jon Gruden said something on ‘Monday Night Football’ about the Legion of Whom. It doesn’t bother us,” Munnerlyn added. “We will be relevant. When you play the Carolina Panthers’ secondary, you’ll know that you played us because we’re going to go out and make plays.”
While media members and opposing coaches and players continue to pile praise on the Panthers’ front seven, the guys in the back end of the defense are largely overlooked – until they blow a coverage or get beaten deep.
That was the case last weekend when Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace caught two long passes against Munnerlyn and was open on two other deep throws, raising anew the questions about whether the No-Name Secondary can hold up its (back) end as the Panthers (8-3) make a push for the playoffs.
Ron Rivera opened the competition at corner this week, and hasn’t named the starters for Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay and the Buccaneers’ improving rookie quarterback Mike Glennon.
Following the Bucs game, the Panthers face New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees twice in a 15-day span. Another test awaits in Week 17 against Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.
Munnerlyn is confident his unheralded group will respond.
“Every dog has his day. We didn’t have a very good game last week,” Munnerlyn said. “But I feel like we can win with this. We can take it to big places.”
Legion has its Captain
Big is an adjective seldom associated with Munnerlyn, a 5-foot-8, 195-pounder who was the Panthers’ seventh-round draft pick out of South Carolina in 2009. If there is a face of the No-Name Secondary, it is the chiseled mug of Munnerlyn.
When the Panthers cut Chris Gamble last winter for salary cap purposes, it left Munnerlyn and free safety Charles Godfrey as the longest-tenured members of the secondary. Munnerlyn signed a 1-year deal to return to Carolina, one of several offseason moves made by first-year general manager Dave Gettleman to shore up the defensive backfield.
The Panthers also brought in former Oakland safety Mike Mitchell, a backup with the Raiders, and veteran corner Drayton Florence, who is with his fifth team in 11 seasons.
While Gettleman took defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with the first two picks in his first draft with the Panthers, he didn’t address the secondary until afterward when he signed Alabama safety Robert Lester and Louisiana-Lafayette corner Melvin White as undrafted free agents.
Lester and White not only made the team out of training camp, but have also started and contributed big plays.
Carolina signed free agent strong safety Quintin Mikell before Week 1 to add another veteran in the secondary. Mikell is the only Panthers’ defensive back who has made a Pro Bowl, having gone in 2009 as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
“We know we don’t have the big, top-dollar guys in the secondary,” Munnerlyn said. “But we go out there and play football together and we pick each other up.”
Godfrey, the highest-paid defensive back who is due to make $5 million in base salary next year, was lost for the season after tearing his Achilles in a Week 2 loss at Buffalo.
Even before Godfrey was sidelined, experts had doubts about the secondary.
During the Panthers’ preseason game at Baltimore, ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” team of Mike Tirico and Gruden raved about the play of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. The on-air commentary about the secondary was less flattering, according to Florence.
And thus a nickname was born.
“The announcers were pretty much disrespecting us, saying they didn’t know any of the guys in the secondary. Me, being one of the older guys, took offense to that,” Florence said. “We’ve just been using it as motivation every week. They might not know us going into the game, but after (they will). Especially these last eight weeks, facing Tom Brady, one of the better quarterbacks in this league, and Matt Ryan, another top-tier quarterback.”
Secondary holds up its end
Despite its modest credentials, the Panthers’ secondary has performed well for the most part. Carolina is ranked seventh in pass defense (215.9 net yards a game) and is tied for third with 15 interceptions.
Only two quarterbacks have thrown for 300 yards against the Panthers – Seattle’s Russell Wilson (320) in Week 1 and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill (310) last week when a third of Tannehill’s yardage came on two throws to Wallace.
But even when the secondary plays well, the praise is usually faint – qualified by discussions about how the pass rush by the front four makes things easier on the defensive backs.
There is certainly some truth in that. Pro Football Focus, an NFL analytics website, ranks the Panthers seventh in getting pressure on the quarterback, despite blitzing just 23.2 percent of the time – below the 31.6 percent league average.
By creating pressure out of their base 4-3 scheme, the Panthers can use linebackers to help in underneath coverage while playing their corners off the line of scrimmage in softer coverage.
“I’ve always believed, being an old secondary coach, that pass rush and sacks and all that stuff go hand-in-hand with coverage. And I think their secondary is playing at a high level,” Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said. “They keep (plays) in front of them, they make teams kick field goals. ... I think that Carolina does a great job of that (and) their secondary is a huge part of that.”
Mitchell, tied with Kuechly for the team lead with three interceptions, said the Panthers do a good job of playing team defense.
“Our rush helps our coverage, there’s no doubt about it. But there’s so many times our coverage helps our rush,” Mitchell said. “We’re only rushing four. A lot of times people are max-(protecting) us anyway. So there has to be good coverage for the rush to get there.”
“They always talk about our front seven, how they get the job done. They can have the praise,” Munnerlyn added. “We’ll just keep driving the bus from the back.”
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said Florence, 32, and the 33-year-old Mikell, whom McDermott coached in Philadelphia, have brought leadership to an otherwise young group.
Often after the secondary meetings break up, Florence will take one of the younger defensive backs aside and “break it down into layman’s terms.”
Florence’s own motivational fires were stoked in August when the Panthers released him during final roster cuts. Florence spent a couple of weeks hanging out with his family in Jacksonville until the Panthers called following a spate of injuries in the Buffalo loss.
“If you’re an emotional guy like me, yeah, I was (ticked) off,” Florence said. “But being a pro, you channel that into a positive place and just come back and take it out on your opponent. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Mitchell plays with edge
If Mikell and Florence have brought experience, Mitchell has brought an attitude.
The former Ohio University standout, a second-round pick by Oakland in 2009, had heretofore been best known to Panthers’ fans for hitting quarterback Cam Newton in a December game last season. Newton, who thought it was a late hit, stood up and bumped referee Jerome Boger, drawing a penalty flag and a $21,000 fine.
Mitchell mostly has managed to straddle the line separating intense play and stupid penalties.
“Mike Mitchell’s been a presence out there. He’s done a good job of playing with that edge that he is, but also not putting himself or the team in bad positions,” tight end Ben Hartsock said.
“I think it’s a group that relishes that under-the-radar kind of vibe,” Hartsock said of the secondary. “But they thrive under that pressure. They love being in those tight situations.”
Mitchell disagrees with the idea the Panthers’ corners can’t succeed in tight, man-to-man coverages.
Pro Football Focus ranks Florence as the league’s 16th best cover corner this season, with Munnerlyn 26th. Third-year player Josh Thomas (74th) and White (80th) rank much farther down the list of 111 players.
White, the undrafted rookie from Louisiana-Lafayette, struggled in man coverage against Brady in the Monday night game.
McDermott places a premium on corners’ ability to tackle, allowing them to drive toward the line and make the plays in front of them.
Despite his stature, Munnerlyn is a willing hitter whom Mitchell calls “pound-for-pound the strongest dude on the team.” After getting burned twice by Wallace last week, Munnerlyn kept his wits and finished with a career-high nine tackles against the Dolphins.
“I feel like I had the worst game of my career. I don’t know why I was sitting on the fastest man in the NFL’s routes,” Munnerlyn said. “Every defensive back has his bad game. It’s how you excel after that. And I felt like the second half I played pretty good. I turned my game into tackling. I started tackling everybody.”
But the big plays given up by Munnerlyn prompted Rivera to open the competition, creating more opportunities for Josh Thomas and Josh Norman, who have combined for 21 starts the past two seasons.
The two Joshes fit the No-Name mold: The Panthers claimed Thomas off waivers from Dallas in 2011, while Norman was a fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina in 2012.
Regardless of who starts, Rivera believes the secondary will bounce back from last week’s letdown.
“They haven’t played a lot together. They’re just learning each other, if you really look at it,” Rivera said. “So as they learn and get a feel for one another, I think the group will get better and better.”
Lester makes his points
At the hotel the night before each game, Rivera asks a player to stand up in front of the team and talk about what football means to him.
Last week in south Florida it was Lester’s turn. The former Alabama safety didn’t talk about the three national championship teams he played on with the Crimson Tide.
According to Mitchell, Lester spoke about the diverse and complementary members of the Panthers’ secondary.
Mitchell thought the rookie made some great points.
“He was talking about us. We have guys that will come up and hit you. We have guys that are physical. We have guys that can run and cover and make plays on the ball. We’ve got everything that any other good secondary has ever had,” Mitchell said.
“We’re done talking. You have to play the game when it’s time to play the game. We’ll just keep getting people’s respect as we go, because the film doesn’t lie.”