Remember the five-game-losing streak Carolina Panthers defense? The one that could kindly be described as “patchy” before Monday night?
If not, they sure reminded everyone what they were expected to be this season on Monday against the New Orleans Saints.
And it still wasn’t enough in a 12-9 loss that further diminished their now-miniscule playoff hopes.
The Panthers’ defense held the Saints to just six points in each half — despite allowing a 21-yard third down conversion on quarterback Drew Brees’ first drive — the 16th 20-plus yard passing play in the last six games.
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Carolina’s offense twice turned the ball over deep in Saints territory and managed just an early touchdown on a trick play halfback pass from Christian McCaffrey to Chris Manhertz. That, and a two-point return on a Saints extra point, was it for Carolina.
The bright spots for the defense were many.
Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis made back-to-back third down stops to follow that early conversion. Kuechly batted down a pass, while Davis stuffed a carry.
Then, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn had back-to-back pass breakups in the second quarter, and a sack in the fourth.
Safety Eric Reid prevented a sure touchdown by Alvin Kamara with a tackle in the open field, and then broke up a pass a few plays later.
Davis then tipped a Brees pass intended for receiver Michael Thomas, and cornerback James Bradberry snatched it in midair for his first interception of the year.
The Panthers forced the Saints to punt on the opening drive of the second half. Defensive end Julius Peppers batted down a Brees pass on third down on the second drive.
And rookie cornerback Donte Jackson’s interception of Brees on a 2-point conversion attempt with 12:12 left in the game, and floated right by everybody to run it to the opposite end zone, awarding Carolina two points.
With 1:44 left to play, Bradberry forced a fumble in and out of the end zone on a Tommylee Lewis carry, which meant the Panthers got the ball with a touchback, down 12-9.
It was a tremendous defensive effort after five weeks of the opposite.
But this time, the offense didn’t hold up its end.
Empyting the playbook early
In a must-win game for the Panthers, offensive coordinator Norv Turner emptied his playbook on the second drive of the game.
On fourth and 2, the Panthers lined up in their “jumbo” short-yardage package, with an extra tackle and fullback Alex Armah. This usually indicates a run play.
But running back McCaffrey took the handoff and ran a couple of steps backward so that he had room to throw a pass to tight end Manhertz, who had peeled off on a route and was wide open downfield. McCaffrey connected with Manhertz on the pass for a 50-yard touchdown.
It was the first touchdown pass in franchise history that was not thrown by a quarterback, and Manhertz’s first career touchdown.
It put the Panthers up 7-0 with 4:12 left in the first quarter.
But aside from the 50-yard play, they amassed only 92 other yards of offense through the rest of the half and held only a 7-6 lead at halftime.
Quarterback Cam Newton threw an interception in the end zone at the end of the second quarter, on a pass intended for receiver Devin Funchess.
The ball was underthrown, further drawing concern about Newton’s shoulder health, but Funchess also appeared to get knocked off his route by Apple, who was plastered to him the whole time.
Newton overthrew McCaffrey on third down on the Panthers’ first series of the second half, which was their fourth punt in five series (with the fifth being an interception) through the second and third quarters.
Jackson’s pick-2 made it 12-9 in favor of the Saints with about 12 minutes to play. But a promising Panthers drive was stalled by a hold on the offensive line, the third of the night.
Newton and the Panthers offense even got the ball back down 12-9 with 1:44 left in the game and no timeouts left. Newton was incomplete on fourth down, with 35 seconds left, and the Panthers dropped a sixth straight game.
Two challenges won, but then...
Head coach Ron Rivera has not had much luck with his challenges this year, particularly his spot challenges, this season.
But Rivera won two on Monday night, including a spot challenge in the third quarter.
Still, it’s the nature of the Panthers’ 2018 season for something to then go wrong, when things are going right.
After winning a third-down spot challenge in the third quarter — and even getting awarded a third challenge in the process — rookie receiver DJ Moore fumbled on a carry and the Saints recovered.
Then, Jackson was flagged for pass interference on an uncatchable ball thrown by Brees on third down of the next play.
The Saints scored a touchdown on the following drive, but Jackson’s pick foiled their 2-point attempt.