With two games in a five-day stretch, the Carolina Panthers’ preparations for Thursday’s NFC South game against New Orleans have been crammed into a small window.
But veteran Panthers safety Roman Harper still took the time Tuesday morning to address his teammates about his old Saints team.
Harper spoke for about five minutes, and his message resonated with at least one of the Panthers’ other defensive backs.
“This is a big game for him. We know how big it is for him,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “Him being over there for that amount of time and coming up here and playing them now, it means everything to him.”
Harper was the Saints’ second-round pick in 2006, part of coach Sean Payton’s first draft class in New Orleans. Harper spent eight seasons with the Saints, made two Pro Bowls and was part of the franchise’s only Super Bowl-winning team, in 2009.
Harper was part of New Orleans’ defensive exodus during the offseason, when safety Malcolm Jenkins, cornerback Jabari Greer and linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith either departed or retired.
In Harper’s case, he was cast off in favor of safety Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints’ first-round pick in 2013.
“They wanted to go younger,” Harper said. “They got a lot of guys that were part of that whole regime. It’s not like it was just aimed toward me or anything like that.”
Harper, 31, signed a two-year deal in March with the Panthers worth $4.5 million, with $1.5 million guaranteed. Although his three interceptions are tied for third in the NFL, Harper has looked slow in coverage, including Sunday when he said he was a step late helping rookie Tre Boston on Seattle tight end Luke Willson’s winning touchdown catch.
During a conference call Tuesday, Payton was asked whether Harper looked like the same player he coached in New Orleans.
“We’re 24 hours into the film study, but I still see the player who was very active in run support, he’s a guy that can really fill a gap, support the run,” Payton said. “He’s very good at covering tight ends. He has that ability to leverage and understand routes. He’s very smart. You never see him out of position.”
Harper expects the Saints to change some of their presnap checks and calls in the hopes he doesn’t identify what they’re doing.
“They’re not going to be just, ‘Oh, Roman’s over there. He won’t remember,’ ” Harper said, laughing. “Of course I remember some things. I was there for a long time.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees is coming off his best game of the season in a 44-23 win against Green Bay. He picked apart the Packers’ secondary, completing 27 of 32 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
But Harper said if the Panthers can collapse the pocket on Brees early in the game, they can disrupt his rhythm.
“He actually starts to seem a little human. He makes some bad throws,” Harper said. “But when he’s hot, he’s hot. I think (Sunday) night he started hitting.”
Panthers wideout Jerricho Cotchery, an 11-year veteran who has faced Harper a couple of times, said receivers always had to be aware of where Harper was on the field.
“You just knew, especially down there, that he was going to fly around. He was the tone-setter,” Cotchery said. “He was the guy that was going to be flying around the ball, hitting the quarterback and hitting guys in the secondary.”
Harper was asked whether he would look to deliver a hit early against his former team.
“I’m not trying to get a big hit. But if it happens, it’ll be nice. I always try to hit somebody as much as I can. I give them everything I’ve got,” said Harper, who is 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds. “It’s not a whole lot, but it’s what I’ve got.”