Thomas Davis just kept shaking his head.
Back and forth. No, no, no.
It was a polite interruption of a (admittedly poorly-phrased) question I asked him in the locker room following a 34-27 preseason loss to Tennessee on Saturday afternoon: You guys executed at times on defense and ...
No, no, no.
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“No, we didn’t execute. We didn’t do our job, in particular the first team defense. We hold ourselves to a higher standard than the way we played today,” he said.
A particularly egregious and momentum-shifting defensive lapse came in the first quarter, with the Titans in the red zone. Running back Derrick Henry was split out wide with tight end Delanie Walker lined up inside him as a receiver, and Panthers corner Daryl Worley was tracking Henry.
Walker jumbled in with Henry briefly, then got knocked aside by Davis. It turned out to be fortuitous for Walker and his quarterback Marcus Mariota’s sharp eye, because the mix-up freed Walker into the corner of the end zone, where he caught an easy touchdown pass to put Tennessee up 10-0.
“I’m not even going to lie, the linebacker did a great job of jamming me,” said Walker to the Titans’ public relations staff at halftime. “I think it kind of messed up his defensive back a little bit.”
It certainly did, as Worley clung to Henry and safety help Mike Adams was late to assist the coverage.
“I ended up jamming Delanie,” admitted Davis. “Something that we work on a lot is not allowing their star players to free release. And it kind of backfired on us, because it caused some confusion, because you couldn’t really tell where they were going. ... Ended up being a positive play for them.”
But Davis was mostly disappointed in the tackling of his defense. Tennessee fired off a few chunk plays early in the game in the air – a 20-yard pass to receiver Taywan Taylor and a 21-yard pass to Tre McBride. Mariota also bit off a 9-yard gain with his legs on a keeper that fooled Carolina’s coverage.
“One of the glaring things that really stood out was the way we tackled. We’re a much better tackling defense than we displayed today,” Davis said.
Gash plays haunted Carolina’s second- and third-team defenses all afternoon. These were the same struggles faced by those groups against Houston last week.
An 8-minute, 10-second drive in the second quarter heralded passes from quarterback Matt Cassel to receivers of 17 yards, 12 yards and 18 yards, while running back Derrick Henry was a complement on the ground as the Titans chipped away at Carolina’s defense and ultimately scored a punch-in touchdown to cap the drive.
After that, Carolina could only keep its offense on the field for three minutes and was held to a field goal. Tennessee answered with another huge run immediately upon getting the ball back with a 53-yard sprint out of a broken tackle by running back David Fuellen.
“It wasn’t one continuous thing, it was a couple of pop plays,” said Rivera. “You’ve got to limit that.”
Bright spots included backup middle linebacker David Mayo’s performance in place of starter Luke Kuechly, who sat out with some rib soreness.
Mayo finished with a team-high 10 tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass defensed in about three quarters of play.
“Whenever you’re replacing a guy like Luke Kuechly, it’s going to be tough,” said Davis. “But David did a great job.”
Veteran defensive end Julius Peppers made his first live-action appearance on Saturday, a high point of which was when he chased down backup quarterback Matt Cassel, which pushed Cassel frantically backwards and toward the opposite sideline before he had to throw away the ball.
“Get him,” laughed Rivera, when asked what was going through his mind as he watch the almost cartoonish pursuit. “Julius is just a tremendous athlete. He does a tremendous job of keeping himself in shape.”
Those positives don’t mask the woes exposed by Carolina’s first-team and depth players Saturday. But Davis agreed that’s why the team has a preseason: To learn from its mistakes.
“The preseason is a lot about learning and getting better,” he said. “This is going to be a great teaching tool for us.”