Carolina spent the entire 2017 season trying to find its deep threat at receiver, working through injuries to heir-apparent rookie second-round pick Curtis Samuel and lightning-fast Damiere Byrd before turning to Kaelin Clay.
And because the universe has a cruel sense of humor, Clay dropped a would-be third-down touchdown pass in the first quarter of Sunday’s 31-26 loss in the Superdome, while two plays later, the vertical threat the Panthers let walk in free agency last spring scored an 80-yard touchdown pass that completely shifted the momentum in the Saints’ favor.
An early dagger, courtesy of Ted Ginn Jr.
The play Ginn ran? Carolina has a name for it.
“Yeah, we call their play ‘dagger,’” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera after the game.
“It made a big difference,” Rivera said. “The disappointing thing was that we were able to handle the rushing game, but we gave up too many big plays over the top, and that was probably the biggest one, obviously all day, and Teddy still has that speed.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees finished with 376 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, but prior to Ginn’s touchdown, Carolina’s defense had him looking a little discombobulated, and held the Saints to minus-9 yards of offense on their first two drives of the game. Carolina had also contained the Saints’ dynamic rushing attack, holding prolific running back tandem Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara to a combined 41 rushing yards.
But the 80-yard bomb helped New Orleans to 229 yards on its next three drives, to a 21-9 halftime lead, while Clay’s drop (followed by Graham Gano’s first missed field goal since Week 5), kept the Panthers just out of reach even as they fought back to within five points in the fourth quarter.
“It hurts,” said veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn after the game. “We felt like we had a great game plan going. We were prepared. We just didn’t play well enough. We gave up too many plays on the back end. And we didn’t play well enough; big plays like that will hurt you and it definitely did in this game.
“We started the game hot, we started the game on fire. They couldn’t drop a bead at first,” he added. “Went and got two three-and-outs. ... But when they hit that big play, it seemed like it started just trickling down, trickling down. And we still gave ourselves an opportunity to win, but we fell short.”
The mistakes Carolina made on the all-too-familiar Ginn play were avoidable, and ones that defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has been warning, preaching and coaching against since the receiver had a free release on a 40-yard touchdown in Week 3.
Ginn was not disrupted at the line of scrimmage as he began his route, and that was partially the fault of Munnerlyn, who allowed the receiver to skim freely past him and into the seam.
“I was showing pressure, me and the safety were showing pressure,” he said. “I don’t know what happened with the communication. I just looked up and Ted caught the ball and scored.”
Brees didn’t have to adjust his timing as Ginn hit the gas pedal, and connected with the receiver on the long ball.
Then, Ginn shook cornerback James Bradberry on the tackle attempt following the catch (Bradberry was a step behind him as it was), and cruised into the end zone.
“He got a good clean read, and he was the No. 2 (option for Brees),” said Rivera. “He runs right through the middle of the defense trying to pull everybody out, and really the deep dig is the primary target. But he had been able to get the safety over a little bit. And Teddy got inside the safety, and split him and the corner.”
At 32 years old, Ginn has caught a league-high 76 percent of his targets – more of the universe’s twisted humor, as Ginn is remembered more by Panthers fans (at least those on social media) for the balls he dropped in a blue-and-white jersey than those he caught.
But after Sunday, he’ll be remembered as the one that got away – literally – for four catches, 115 yards, a touchdown, and a trip to Minnesota for next Sunday’s divisional playoffs.
And as the player who held a broom in his hand during postgame interviews to signify a Saints’ three-game “sweep” of the Panthers.
“Going from a team that pretty much said (I) wasn’t really a factor for them, and then to come out here and be an X-factor in the last three games,” he told reporters, “It’s been a great deal for me.”