The starting secondary for the Carolina Panthers for Week 1 – Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper – has a combined 22 years of experience, 1,607 tackles and 37 interceptions.
Assembled this offseason, the group’s first snap against Tampa Bay next Sunday will be just their eighth in a live-action game together.
The Panthers secondary enters the regular season having played just seven live snaps together, all of which came in the first series of Thursday night’s 10-0 win against Pittsburgh in the final exhibition.
Injury hampered Harper, the strong safety, for most of August. White, a cornerback, also missed time because of a tight back. They played well in their limited time together, but is it enough?
Free safety DeCoud believes so.
“Cason has played a lot in this league, Roman has played a lot in this league, and everything’s been thrown at us but the kitchen sink,” DeCoud said. “Our leadership and our ability to know the game of football will help us out immensely.
“After a while there are only so many ways you can skin a cat. When you’ve played enough football, things fit together a certain way and we’re not going to miss a beat.”
To be sure, the defensive backs are familiar with one another despite their lack of exhibition time together. They all worked together in organized team activities and veteran minicamp in the spring and summer.
The quartet even got some work together early in training camp. But when Harper was sidelined with turf toe on Aug. 1, they weren’t able to work as a group again until this week at practice.
“It was a handful (of snaps Thursday), but it was enough to get the flow going and get a feel for each other,” DeCoud said of Harper. “We took every rep in OTAs and minicamp, and here and there in camp. It’s nothing like we’re going to be out there missing cues because we’re both two smart safeties.”
In the first series against the Steelers, the Panthers’ defense allowed three first downs, including an opening-play 15-yard rush around the left end by receiver Markus Wheaton. Cason recognized the play early and was able to go from the far sideline as the left cornerback across the field to make the tackle after White was blocked near the knees.
Two plays later, on second-and-4 from the Pittsburgh 36, Harper made a nice one-on-one tackle on fullback Will Johnson after linebacker A.J. Klein missed him.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott then dialed up a strong safety blitz for Harper, who disguised it well but the Steelers foiled it with a counter-bootleg for quarterback Landry Jones. Harper couldn’t get his hands on Jones but pressured him enough to release the ball early for just a 1-yard gain.
“It’s just much different being in a stadium in a game setting,” Cason said. “It’s live bullets, it’s another team. Of course they’re trying to win and you’re not just going against each other. To see where your guy is going to be throughout the course of a call and throughout the course of a series, you have the feel of bam, boom. Even though it’s not as much as a full game, it’s just getting that feel.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera expressed no concern about the lack of time together for the group. He liked what he saw last week in practice and during the game, and he expects all four to practice together this week leading up to Tampa Bay.
“(I feel comfortable) mostly because of what they’ve done all week,” Rivera said. “Roman’s been out there and had three good days of practice with them. He’s gotten a lot of reps, taken a lot of snaps so we feel comfortable with them.”
Of the four, only second-year corner White played for the Panthers last year. Harper, DeCoud and Cason were free-agent acquisitions from New Orleans, Atlanta and Arizona, respectively. They came to Carolina after cornerback Captain Munnerlyn went to Minnesota and safety Mike Mitchell got a payday in Pittsburgh.
Known as the Legion of Whom, last year’s Carolina secondary helped the defense to the sixth-best passing defense in the NFL. And with due respect, this year’s bunch believes it can improve on that.
“I take nothing away from the guys that were here last year,” Cason said. “However, in my opinion, I feel we can be better than that.
“Who would I be if I didn’t think that? I wouldn’t be a competitor. I wouldn’t be a fighter. I wouldn’t be here.”