Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ defensive roller coaster vs. Eagles ends with the only thing that matters

Despite playing poorly for three quarters, the Carolina Panthers’ defense forced Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) to fumble the ball on the last play of Sunday’s game to seal a 21-17 comeback victory.
Despite playing poorly for three quarters, the Carolina Panthers’ defense forced Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) to fumble the ball on the last play of Sunday’s game to seal a 21-17 comeback victory. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

For all the miscues, mistakes, errors, penalties, missed tackles, blown coverages and ... well, everything that went wrong for the Carolina Panthers’ defense on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, they still somehow had a chance to salvage the game.

And they sure weren’t going to let it go to waste.

First, some context. For the first three quarters Sunday, an eventual 21-17 Carolina comeback victory, the Panthers’ defense was about as ineffective as it has been all season. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz already had thrown for over 280 yards, Philadelphia’s two tight ends were carving the middle of the Panthers’ defense, and nobody in the secondary could contain the big-bodied Alshon Jeffery.

Oh, and they had allowed 17 points without taking the ball away or recording any points of their own.

Not ideal.

“Things just weren’t really working for those first three quarters,” defensive end Wes Horton said. “They were able to move the ball down the field on us, we couldn’t get off the field on third downs.

“We knew we could get off the field — it just took all the way until the fourth quarter to actually do it.”

Then, like Horton said, everything changed. A switch flipped, maybe not in terms of the play-calling or effort, but the momentum on the field.

As quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers’ offense finally fell into sync, stringing together passes and finding creases in the defense for the first time all day, the defense watched eagerly from the sidelines.

And boy did they ever feed off the offense’s mojo.

“When you’re away, you have to feed off each other. You can’t feed off the crowd,” safety Mike Adams said. “(We saw the offense) get a first down, they get the chains moving, we’re like, ‘OK, OK. Now it’s our turn.’

“Now we get out there, we get the stops, and they’re feeding off us. And that’s what we have to do when we’re on the road. All we have is each other when we’re on the road, and that’s who we relied on: us. Just us.”

What ensued was one of the most historic, dramatic comebacks in franchise history.

After allowing Wentz and the Eagles offense to rack up 320 yards the first three quarters, the Panthers’ defense entirely clamped down in the fourth and allowed just 22 offensive yards. All those free-wheeling drives the Eagles had the first three quarters? Gone, replaced instead by a short drive, a three-and-out, and a fluky final possession.

A final possession which encapsulates the defense’s entire day, to be honest.

On the very first play of the drive — and remember, at this point, Newton had just connected with Olsen for the go-ahead touchdown — Wentz went all out for the win. He bombed a pass all the way down the field to a streaking Jeffery, who had gotten behind cornerback James Bradberry.

So Bradberry did what he had to. He yanked Jeffery down before he could catch the game-winning touchdown and incurred a 48-yard defensive pass interference penalty.

“He ran a nine route (straight sprint down the field) from a cut split, and I was chilling pretty much,” Bradberry said. “I was expecting something else and he ran a nine route, so I pretty much had to chase him down and try to give us a chance to win.”

With two Eagles timeouts left, 1:11 to play and the ball on the Panthers’ 30, the Panthers could have folded. They could have recognized how drastically the odds were stacked against them, remembered how poorly they’d played earlier.

After all, that’s how things have sometimes gone for that unit this season.

“It’s satisfying,” defensive end Julius Peppers said, “because there’s been a couple of times when we needed a stop on defense and didn’t get it.”

Yet the group didn’t fold. Actually, they did the opposite.

“We didn’t blink,” Adams said. “My boy JB (Bradberry) ... when that happened to JB, we didn’t blink. We were like, ‘All right, so what?’ They’re not gonna score, they’re not gonna score.

“I know that JB has been on the best receiver every week, week in and week out, so I’m not taking anything away from him. He got behind him, so what? Let’s go. We’re gonna line up again and play.”

That Bradberry DPI wasn’t part of the defense’s plan, just like ceding all those yards and a 17-point fourth-quarter cushion weren’t part of it.

But as had happened at the start of the fourth quarter, a switch flipped. The coverages were a little tighter. The pass rush, a little quicker. The linebackers, a little faster.

And after a short run and an incomplete pass, everything came together for one final play.

Fourth down, 2 yards to go, game on the line. You against them.

Don’t blink, remember? Then the ball was snapped, and ...

“Just a regular green rush up front,” Peppers explained. “On my side specifically, we had a game going, me and (defensive tackle Kyle) Love. He got good penetration up the field, I came underneath, collapsed the pocket, quarterback didn’t really have anywhere to step up or throw to, and everybody was swiping at the ball.

“And it just popped up, and we got it.”

Peppers’ sack on Wentz knocked the ball loose, and when Love fell on top of it, he ended more than just the game.

He ended a pitiful defensive performance with a high note, an otherwise forgettable afternoon with a moment you never want to forget.

And more than anything, he ended any lingering doubts about whether or not this Carolina defense has still got it.

“They’re the defending champs. We’re definitely capable,” Adams said of what the victory proves. “We’re capable of doing whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it. We’ve just got to be consistent doing it, because — and I don’t want to keep dwelling on it — but you think about last week, we shoulda coulda woulda. And this week, we really got it done.”

So no, the Panthers’ defense Sunday was not pretty. Far from it, really.

And no, it wasn’t particularly effective. Especially not for the first three quarters.

But the defense was one thing, and on a roller coaster of an afternoon, that ended up being the only thing that mattered:

It was just good enough to win.

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