Tucked in the upper reaches of free safety Tre Boston’s locker is a memento from the Carolina Panthers’ Super Bowl season.
Collecting dust on the top shelf of Boston’s locker is the Thieves Ave. sign that was the mantra of the Panthers’ secondary in 2015 when seemingly every game was an exercise in legalized larceny.
Boston says he tried to hang the sign in the defensive backs section of the locker room early this season, but the adhesive tape wasn’t strong enough to hold it.
The Panthers haven’t had much use for it anyway, lacking a true defensive identity – and healthy players – as they’ve continued to slide closer to elimination.
“It’s been up there. We wanted a new one this season. Every year we want to get a new sign. Same message, just a new sign,” Boston said.
“It ain’t gone nowhere,” he added. “You want me to bring it down for you?”
For one day anyway, the thieves were back in action.
The Panthers forced a season-high five turnovers and sacked San Diego quarterback Philip Rivera five times to take a 28-16 victory Sunday that kept their faint playoff hopes alive at least one more week.
All five of the takeaways came at the expense of Rivers. The former N.C. State star still has a strong arm, but he’s a stationary target in the pocket and prone to give the ball away.
“Every pass rusher’s dream is to play against a quarterback that don’t run. He’ll hold the ball until the last drop,” defensive end Mario Addison said. “I love to play against quarterbacks like that.”
Addison had the final sack against Rivers – a take-down for a safety in the fourth quarter after the Chargers (5-8) had picked off Cam Newton at the goal line (and initially appeared to have scored on a 100-yard interception return by Trovon Reed).
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the key was to get early pressure on Rivers, and defensive tackle Kawann Short obliged. Short, who started the game at end in place of the injured Charles Johnson, had a sack on each of the Chargers’ first two series, including a sack-fumble on San Diego’s second possession.
Rivers lost more than the ball on Short’s second sack. In the scramble that ensued, running back Melvin Gordon injured his hip when he went down awkwardly under linebacker Thomas Davis.
Losing the league’s fourth-leading rusher and No. 4 all-purpose yardage leader was a big blow to the Chargers (5-8), who entered the game tied with Jacksonville for last in the NFL in turnovers.
Rivers lost two fumbles and was intercepted three times, including the first career picks by rookie cornerback Daryl Worley and second-year linebacker Shaq Thompson.
Rivers admitted forcing passes late in the game, but felt he didn’t have a choice.
“I know better than that, but at the same time I don’t want to stand back there and throw balls away and get beat 35-3,” Rivers said. “It just felt like that was the way it was going.”
The Panthers’ offense didn’t exactly cash in on all the turnovers, scoring just 10 points off the takeaways. But they helped Carolina (5-8) enjoy favorable field position most of the game.
The Panthers’ average starting field position was their 43; San Diego’s was its 21. Carolina won the turnover battle 5-1.
“That’s a pretty good defensive stat line there. You’re going to win a lot of ball games with stats like that on the defensive side of the ball,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “So hats off to them, they got us in a lot of short fields.”
The Panthers played without two of their defensive captains: middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (concussion protocol) and Johnson (hamstring).
Kuechly wasn’t as animated on the sideline as he was last week at Seattle, when the Panthers surrendered 40 points and 534 yards in an ugly, lopsided loss.
On Sunday the guys on the field provided the energy.
“I think it shows we’re not just going to roll over. It shows we’re going to fight,” said linebacker A.J. Klein, who had a strip-sack against Rivers. “We’ve got a lot of high-character people on this team. … We’re going to keep fighting until our last game. And wherever the chips fall, that’s where they fall.”
The Panthers are three games back in the NFC South with three to play.
Rivera said he wasn’t going to scoreboard-watch, but would focus on the next opponent.
That would be Washington, which has a cornerback whose departure from Charlotte had a lot to do with the Panthers’ defense losing its swagger – and perhaps the Thieves Ave. sign.
Expect to hear a lot this week about cornerback Josh Norman, who wound up in Washington on a five-year, $75 million contract three days after Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded his contract tag.
The Panthers looked a lot like that Norman-led secondary from 2015 against the Chargers – getting after the quarterback, getting their hands on the ball and “just trying to have fun,” strong safety Kurt Coleman said.
“That’s Panther football right there,” Boston said. “We’re capable of doing that every week.”
Too often they haven’t done it, and the secondary’s thievery sign stayed stashed out of sight.