Dave Gettleman’s grand secondary experiment has failed.
In his first three years as the Carolina Panthers’ general manager, Gettleman had a knack for piecing together the defensive backfield without breaking the bank.
He’d pick up a Mike Mitchell, Roman Harper or Charles Tillman on the cheap in free agency and Panthers coach Ron Rivera would plug them into a secondary that thrived on its “Legion of Whom” identity.
That strategy worked in part because there were always enough talented veterans mixed with unproven players.
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But it’s not working this season.
In the span of 15 days, the Panthers have allowed the two highest single-game passing totals in the franchise’s 22-year history. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (503 yards in a 48-33 win) and New Orleans’ Drew Brees will each get another crack at the Panthers.
Brees sliced up the Panthers’ young and banged-up secondary for 465 yards Sunday and the Saints held on for a 41-38 victory after Wil Lutz hit a 52-yard field goal with 11 seconds left.
Brees completed 34 of 49 passes for four touchdowns – highlighted by an 87-yarder to Brandin Cooks – while firing at cornerback rotation that included two rookie starters and a guy best known for his special teams prowess.
It was Brees’ 15th 400-yard game, moving him past Peyton Manning for the most in NFL history.
His big day felt inevitable Friday when the Panthers announced corner Robert McClain would miss the game. But when a hamstring injury to Robert McClain sends your secondary into disarray, there are bigger issues.
It’s not all on the defensive backs.
The pass rush again failed to generate enough pressure, something Rivera acknowledged for the first time this season.
Charles Johnson had the first sack by a starting defensive end this season, and even then he had to share it with situational edge-rusher Mario Addison. It was the Panthers’ lone sack.
While the Saints were teeing off Cam Newton with 13 quarterback hits, the Panthers managed only six on Brees – one of which drew a roughing the passer penalty on Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short.
It’s worth noting the Saints were down to their third left tackle after Tony Hills replaced an injured Andrus Peat late in the first half.
“As a defense we want to get sacks, not just pressures,” Short said. “Our whole goal is to get that guy off his spot and get him on the ground. We did it, but we didn’t do enough.”
The $14 million question
Short and all of his defensive teammates are sick of hearing about cornerback Josh Norman, and it’s tough to blame them. But why Gettleman didn’t let Norman play the season under the franchise tag remains the $14 million question.
Gettleman has yet to address why he made Bené Benwikere the scapegoat for Julio Jones’ 300-yard receiving game two weeks ago.
Those moves, coupled with second-round pick James Bradberry’s turf toe, put defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in the unenviable spot of starting rookies Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez against a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Worley was beaten on one touchdown and Sanchez gave up two, biting on a double move that left him trailing Cooks on his long score.
“We knew coming in they liked big chunks, big plays,” Sanchez said. “And the first quarter to get beat on a double (move), you can’t do that. Gotta be smarter.”
Picking on rookies
According to Pro Football Focus, Brees had a perfect passer rating when targeting Sanchez, who gave up seven catches on the nine balls thrown his way.
Brees found Michael Thomas on a 9-yard touchdown in the second quarter after Thomas worked free on a crossing route against Worley, who left in the second half with a concussion.
Thomas’ touchdown gave the Saints a 21-0 lead, but Newton brought the Panthers all the way back, throwing for 322 yards and accounting for three touchdowns.
Newton’s 2-yard touchdown dive and ensuing 2-point conversion pass to Devin Funchess made it 38-38 with 2 minutes, 58 seconds remaining.
If the Panthers could get a quick stop, Newton would have time for a potential winning drive.
On third-and-9, Brees threw a check-down to running back Travaris Cadet when none of his receivers were open down the field. Cadet took off running for the first-down marker, and made it before cornerback Teddy Williams pushed him out.
Williams, who played a lot in place of the ineffective Sanchez and injured Worley, said he needed to be in better position.
The same could be said for the entire team.
Needing a leap
The Panthers stagger into their bye week with a 1-5 record and a four-game losing streak.
The hope is Bradberry will be back after the bye and nickel back Leonard Johnson’s surgically repaired Achilles will be healthy enough for him to contribute.
But unless the pass rush makes a big leap over the final 10 games, it’s tough to see this secondary getting much better.
The three corners Gettleman drafted might end up being great players down the road, but that’s of little solace this year.