In case you haven't noticed, the Carolina Panthers defense has gotten pretty good again.
A month after getting destroyed by the New Orleans Saints, the Panthers played just well enough on defense Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium to key Carolina's 23-20 win over New Orleans.
Despite the awful loss of Luke Kuechly – who was taken out of the game on a cart with 4:41 to go, sobbing uncontrollably and on his way to be evaluated for a concussion – the defense rose up enough to win this game.
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Yes, Carolina was outscored 17-0 at home in the fourth quarter – for the second game in a row! But let's not lose sight of the fact that overall the Panthers gave up less than half as many points to the Saints as they did only one month ago in a 41-38 New Orleans win.
With just enough help from the offense – which got a huge third-down catch from Kelvin Benjamin – the Panthers managed to finish exactly the sort of game they have lost so many times this season.
It was a Pyrrhic victory, however, for the injury cost to Carolina (now 4-6) was very steep. The Panthers lost their best defensive player (Kuechly), their top sacker (Mario Addison) their Pro Bowl center (Ryan Kalil) and their nickel cornerback (Leonard Johnson) during the game, and none was able to return.
Quarterback Cam Newton said in his postgame press conference: "Man, it was the Grim Reaper walking out there today."
Man, it was the Grim Reaper walking out there today.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, referring to Carolina’s many injuries during the 23-20 win over New Orleans.
Kuechly's injury was an emotion-drenched mystery. Like many, after watching the replay, Newton thought Kuechly might have had a different injury but not a concussion. Always quick to get up, this time Kuechly stayed down and was surrounded my medical personnel. Then Kuechly was carted off, in tears, in a touching scene in which the crowd stood to give their star middle linebacker a standing ovation and scream "Luuuuuke."
"I thought it was foot, knee – I didn't know it was his head," Newton said of Kuechly's injury. "I'm praying for him."
Saints had NFL’s No. 1 offense
The difference in the Panthers defense was stark compared to what it was in October. New Orleans leaped to a 21-0 lead when the two teams played in New Orleans and had one huge play after another.
This time the Saints – entering the game ranked No. 1 in the NFL in both total yards and passing yards – could only muster three points in the first three quarters combined.
Bottom line: Carolina's offense was worse than it was a month ago in that 41-38 loss, but this time the Panthers defense was better.
Carolina led 23-3 entering the fourth quarter. The Saints ultimately could not come all the way back against a Panthers team that was able to limp to the finish line after some serious angst.
Bottom line: Carolina's offense was worse than it was a month ago, but the defense was better.
The Panthers defense gave up a lot of short passes, but the home run Drew Brees wanted was never there. Brandin Cooks, who tore through the Panthers for an 87-yard TD last time on a double move against overmatched rookie Zack Sanchez, was held in far better check this time (seven catches, 42 yards). New Orleans’ Brees completed 35 passes, but none of them went for more than 22 yards. Brees threw for 285 yards altogether – 180 less than a month ago.
"We just didn't give up the big play," Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said.
Addison, Coleman get takeaways
It wasn't just the defensive secondary that was better for the Panthers, although it helped a lot that James Bradberry was on the field at cornerback rather than Sanchez. It was a better coaching scheme, and, most importantly, a better pass rush.
In the first game, Brees threw the ball 49 times and was only sacked once. His 465 passing yards in that game was the second-most the Panthers had given up to a quarterback in their 22 seasons (trailing only Matt Ryan's 503 from earlier this season).
This time the Panthers matched that sack total on their first series, when Addison blasted Brees, caused a fumble and recovered it.
Addison would later sack Brees a second time before getting hurt, and Kony Ealy sacked Brees as well. The Panthers also got enough pressure to knock down a third-down pass (that was Charles Johnson) and help cause Brees to throw a ball up for grabs that Coleman came down with for a gorgeous pickoff in the second quarter.
Much like last week – when Carolina's defense never gave up a single TD to Kansas City – the Panthers offense wasn't doing its part for much of the game. Carolina was struggling for most of the first half offensively until Ted Ginn Jr. made a stunning catch of a 40-yard Cam Newton bomb for a touchdown just before the half.
It wasn't just the defensive secondary that was better for the Panthers. ... It was a better coaching scheme, and, most importantly, a better pass rush that sacked Drew Brees three times and helped cause two turnovers.
You're not going to shut down the Saints forever, and Brees found Brandon Coleman for a nine-yard TD with 11:22 left to cut Carolina's lead to 23-13. Then the Panthers gave up another TD later in the quarter to make it 23-20, shortly after Kuechly's departure shook the team and the stadium.
But ultimately, it was good enough. New Orleans didn't get the ball back again until 14 seconds remained at its own 14 after Benjamin's huge catch took a couple of extra minutes off the clock, and the Panthers defense made sure there would be no miracle.
A defensive trend
This continues a trend. Since the New Orleans debacle a month ago, Carolina had an eight-sack performance against Arizona in a win and a fine game in a 13-10 win over the L.A. Rams. It wasn't the defense's fault on Sunday when Carolina lost, and then the defense basically won this game for the Panthers.
In other words, the transformation has happened for one side of the ball for Carolina. Given that was the No. 1 offense in the NFL they were playing, that was a playoff-worthy performance for the Panthers' defense.
If the offense ever catches up -- and if Kuechly is not out for too long -- the Panthers just might have a little something.