Other than Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and wideout Julio Jones, the name being mentioned most in the Carolina Panthers’ locker room Sunday belonged to a cornerback who’s no longer around.
Of course, you could make a strong case that the current corners were no-shows as well.
We know what the Panthers saved when general manager Dave Gettleman pulled the $13.95 million franchise tag from Josh Norman in April after negotiations on a long-term deal reached an impasse.
Now we know what it cost them.
Ryan and Jones turned the soon-to-be-demolished Georgia Dome into their personal playground, shredding a Panthers defense that did little to stop them in the Falcons’ 48-33 victory.
Ryan threw for 503 yards and Jones racked up 12 catches for 300 yards – the highest single-game passing and receiving yardage totals allowed in the Panthers’ 22-year history.
Jones’ yardage was the fourth-highest receiving total of the Super Bowl era.
The Falcons’ 571 total yards were the second-most given up in team history, while the 48 points tied for the third-most surrendered.
The meltdown by the back end of the defense prompted a number of postgame questions along the same vein: Had the Panthers thought about how big a difference Norman would have made lined up on Jones?
“We don’t. Point-blank period, we don’t,” cornerback Bené Benwikere said.
“Josh has been doing his thing on Julio since they’ve been starting that matchup. It’s on us. Josh is not here. We cannot dwell on Josh. We’re not here to answer that question.”
In fairness, Norman didn’t exactly shut down Jones last December when the Falcons ruined the Panthers’ run at a perfect season. Jones caught nine passes for 178 yards and a touchdown in Atlanta’s 20-13 victory.
That led Benwikere to suggest Norman lost his swagger a week after he was flagged and penalized for his personal grudge match with the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr.
Any swagger Norman’s young replacements might have had was gone by the end of the first quarter – or in James Bradberry’s case, by the end of the first series.
Bradberry, the second-round pick from Samford, was given of task of shadowing Jones. He ended up trailing him as Ryan threw to Jones on the Falcons’ first three plays, covering 51 yards and setting the tone for what would be long day for anyone who tried to cover No. 11.
Bradberry injured his toe during the first series when he stubbed it on the back of Jones’ foot. Bradberry sat out most of the next two quarters while Benwikere and Worley, the third-round pick from West Virginia, took their turns on Jones.
Nobody had an answer for Jones during the game – or afterward.
Asked about the strategy for defending Jones, Bradberry said: “It wasn’t anything special. We just knew we had to limit his catches. But obviously we didn’t do that.”
Jones said he was surprised the Panthers tried to guard with single coverage. He didn’t complain.
Benwikere hinted at a more comprehensive plan, which Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott should take a torch to before the Falcons come to Charlotte on Christmas Eve.
“It unraveled for us. Everything we planned, everything we wanted to do just didn’t work for us,” Benwikere said. “We had a scheme. We had a system in place. We had things we wanted to do. Things kind of happened and it fell apart from that.
“Once that happened, other people were called to step up. Other people are supposed to make plays, and we just didn’t.”
The defense had a couple of moments.
Linebacker Thomas Davis batted a Ryan pass into the air that safety Kurt Coleman intercepted and returned 8 yards for a score. Defensive tackle Kawann Short recorded his first sack of the season.
And that was about it.
The Falcons (3-1) came in as the NFL’s top-ranked offense in terms of yards and points. Critics pointed out Dan Quinn’s team padded those stats against the league’s two worst defenses in Oakland and New Orleans.
The way Atlanta took apart Carolina (1-3), that talk should cease.
The Falcons rolled up 10 plays of 19 yards or longer, nine of which were passes. Ryan had plenty of time to stand in the pocket and throw – deep.
“They were just getting some chunk plays on us and as a defense you can’t let that happen,” middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “Big plays kill you.”
There’s not many places the Panthers can turn at cornerback.
Leonard Johnson is eligible to come off the non-football injury list in two weeks, after offseason Achilles surgery, but he was signed mostly to cover slot receivers.
Zack Sanchez, the third corner the Panthers drafted, remains on the practice squad.
Love them or leave them
Barring a trade or signing a veteran off his couch, these are the corners Gettleman rolled with when he decided to let Norman walk without getting anything in return.
You can love them or leave them. To a man in the locker room, the defensive veterans say they’re going to love ’em up.
“I’m going to take my guys that I’ve got right now and we’re going to fix it with who we’ve got right now,” defensive end Charles Johnson said.
They better get started. Drew Brees will be waiting in New Orleans in two weeks.
Most passing yards in a game vs. Panthers
Oct. 2, 2016
at St. Louis
Nov. 5, 2000
Oct. 9, 2005
at New Orleans
Dec. 30, 2012
Most receiving yards in a game vs. Panthers
Oct. 2, 2016
Oct. 21, 2001
Dec. 8, 2008
Dec. 27, 2015