Of the myriad issues with the Carolina Panthers defense this season, failures in pass defense have been among the most repeated.
Carolina’s defense is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 69.3 percent of their passes, next-to-last in the NFL. In recent games, Carolina’s secondary has done little to help that statistic.
“The NFL is a game of contesting throws,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “Sometimes you contest them and it doesn’t work out. Having said that, you have to go out there with the mindset of challenging people. These quarterbacks are elite quarterbacks we’re facing – (Drew) Brees and (Russell) Wilson and so on. You’ve got to go out there with the mindset of (being) mentally tough, determined, challenge the man in front of you.”
With a secondary that has been in flux all season, the Panthers have struggled to perform that fundamental. No other time has the Panthers’ inability to contest throws been more apparent than the 2-minute drill at the end of the first half of Carolina’s 28-10 loss to New Orleans last week.
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Starting at their 15 with 1:49 left in the half, the Saints went 85 yards in 10 plays, scoring what amounted to the game-winning touchdown just before halftime.
The Panthers had New Orleans in third-and-10 from the 15 after two incompletions, but cornerback Antoine Cason allowed three straight completions that got the Saints near midfield.
First, Brees completed a 17-yard pass to Kenny Stills. Then, in no huddle, Brees found Stills once more against Cason for a gain of 9 yards.
After that completion, CBS cameras showed Cason looking across the field with his hands up in apparent confusion about the next defensive call.
“The communication really wasn’t that good for me,” Cason said. “I was on the left side; I was on the other side trying to get situated and trying to get different things going. There was a lot of stuff happening, and it was just, I take responsibility. I took my mind away from what the situation was.
“I’m on the other side. The play happens. I’m looking over trying to get a call. The coaches are trying to figure out what call to make. They make their call; I can’t see. It was just one of those things, and of course it happened at the (worst) time possible, and I’m a part of it.”
Brees hit tight end Jimmy Graham in the flat for a gain of 5 yards as Cason came up in coverage.
Those completions could be overlooked, but Cason’s pass interference in the end zone could not. On third-and-1 from the Carolina 33 with 14 seconds left, Brees heaved a pass to Robert Meachum in the end zone. Cason was in coverage, and he tried to turn to find and defend the ball.
Instead, the ball got to Meachum just as Cason began turning, and Cason was flagged for pass interference. One play later, the Saints scored.
“He could have made a play on the ball,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He was in position; he was right underneath the guy where he needed to be, and what you’d like to see is him get his head around and play the ball. I think just the sensation of feeling like he was out of position, he didn’t go through his technique like he should have.”
Cason was benched for the second half in favor of Melvin White, who less than two months ago was benched for his poor play.
While Josh Norman has solidified his spot at cornerback, White and Cason will compete this week for the other starting job. Though it’s his first season at Carolina, Cason knows the team’s history of benching defensive backs.
Norman hardly saw the field again after giving up a touchdown early last season. Charles Godfrey, who never fully regained his speed after an Achilles injury in 2013, was released less than two weeks ago after allowing several third-down conversions.
“Yeah, so it looks really bad on me, and that’s upsetting,” Cason said. “I don’t really take too well to that, and I don’t really appreciate that at all.”