Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn often repeats the football cliché about defensive backs needing to have short memories.
So maybe Munnerlyn was exercising selective memory when he said the Panthers allowed New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees to “dink and dunk us down the field” in the Saints’ 31-13 win at the Superdome on Dec. 8.
Munnerlyn’s recollection of the game did not jibe with his head coach’s.
“I’m not quite sure if he saw what I saw,” Ron Rivera said Monday, laughing. “There were some mistakes in that game and it really wasn’t a matter of dinking and dunking.”
Brees passed for 313 yards and four touchdowns in the first meeting with the Panthers, and had seven completions of 18 yards or longer.
As the teams, each with 10-4 records, prepare for Sunday’s rematch at Bank of America Stadium for control of the NFC South, the Panthers’ biggest adjustment is figuring out how to defend Brees.
Carolina sacked Brees just twice in the first game after failing to generate a consistent pass rush from its front four. The Panthers increased their pressure by blitzing Brees in the second half.
“That seemed to help us, to get him moving his feet and get him to throw the ball a little bit quicker,” Rivera said. “If you give him time – you give him an opportunity to sit back there and find his throwing lanes, he’s very, very effective.”
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said the Panthers have to pick their spots carefully against Brees, whose experience and quick release help him make plays against the blitz.
According to Pro Football Focus, an advanced stats website, Brees is the league’s fifth-rated passer against pressure with an accuracy percentage of 65.8. Denver’s Peyton Manning is first at 71.6, while the Panthers’ Cam Newton is sixth at 65.7.
“Statistically, you know (Brees) is pretty darned good against the blitz. We knew it going in last time. We know it going in this time,” McDermott said.
“Most great quarterbacks are better when you blitz them because they want to see it. They want to get the ball out and into the receivers’ hands. Drew’s no different,” McDermott added. “We’ll have to be smart. We’ll have to cover well if and when we do blitz. But as we all know, to let a great quarterback sit back there and pick you apart, that’s not the way to go, either. It’s a real slippery slope.”
In St. Louis’ 27-16 win against the Saints on Sunday, the Rams were able to get pressure on Brees out of their base, 4-3 defense. Most of it came from former North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn, who had two of the four sacks against Brees.
When Quinn beat Saints left tackle Charles Brown and forced a Brees fumble in the third quarter, coach Sean Payton benched Brown, moved Zach Strief from right to left tackle and inserted Bryce Harris at Strief’s spot.
Against Carolina, the Saints gave their tackles help by having their backs chip Panthers defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who combined for a half-sack. The Panthers countered by blitzing their linebackers up the middle, Rivera said.
When McDermott noticed the Saints turning their protection toward one side of the field, the Panthers blitzed from the other side.
“So there were a couple adjustments we made as far as our pressure was concerned,” Rivera said. “I thought Sean and the defensive staff made some good decisions with those.”
The Panthers, however, have relied on their defensive line most of the season to get to the quarterback, a strategy that allows their linebackers to help in coverage.
“I think one of the strengths of our defense is our front four, and I’m hoping we can get off the rock and play some good defense up front,” McDermott said. “That’s the spearhead of our defense.”
There were issues in the secondary against the Saints, as well. Munnerlyn said communication problems led to some of the coverage breakdowns.
Munnerlyn and the rest of the defensive backs responded in a 30-20 win Sunday against the New York Jets. The Panthers held rookie quarterback Geno Smith to 167 passing yards and limited receiver Santonio Holmes to two catches after he referred to the secondary as the “weakest link” of the Panthers’ defense.
Munnerlyn, who admitted Holmes’ comments fired him up, said he won’t need extra motivation this weekend.
“We’re setting ourselves up for home-field advantage, and I think it’s a first-round bye, too,” Munnerlyn said.
“I feel we didn’t play our best football against them last week. I don’t need anybody to call me out and make me play the way I did. We’ve just got to play all lights-out and communicate with each other. I think it’s going to be a totally different game plan and we’re going to go out there and execute, and we’re going to win the game.”
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