One of the hidden storylines this week hasn’t been a secret to the Carolina Panthers. They have to do a better job against speedy Philadelphia punt returner Darren Sproles.
Sproles returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter of what became a 45-21 beatdown of the Panthers last year in Philadelphia.
It was a comedy of errors on a play that busted the game wide open for the the Eagles, but Rivera doesn’t think the plan against Sproles needs to change.
“I think what we need to do is just execute the one we had last year better,” Rivera said this week. “That’s the probably the biggest truth about the matter. We didn’t execute it properly, we didn’t stay in our lanes like we were supposed to, we didn’t get off the line of scrimmage like we should have. We let ourselves get grabbed and pulled and turned.
“You’ve got to fight your way through it, get into your lanes and be disciplined. And then you’ve got to be a willing tackler. You can’t throw your shoulder into him. You’ve got to hit, wrap up and drive him down. That’s the only way you’re going to stop a guy like Darren Sproles.”
You’ve got to fight your way through it, get into your lanes and be disciplined. And then you’ve got to be a willing tackler. ... That’s the only way you’re going to stop a guy like Darren Sproles.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera
Panthers punter Brad Nortman was forced to punt from his end zone after the offense went three-and-out. The coaches called a “white punt,” which means kick it high, long and straight, and Nortman delivered with a punt that hung in the air for 4.7 seconds. Sproles caught it at the Philadelphia 35.
Gunner James Dockery over-pursued Sproles and was a non-factor on the play. Long snapper J.J. Jansen was the first to Sproles and he missed the tackle. So did A.J. Klein as Sproles then found the open field.
Sproles juked Nortman and went toward the sideline. Tre Boston had an angle but was blocked by an Eagles player as Sproles went the distance.
“He’s a dangerous returner so you have to limit his space,” Nortman said. “I have to get good hang time and better directional punts this year and just close him down because he’s a good returner.”
15.7 Yards per punt return this season by Philadelphia’s Darren Sproles, second best in the league, with one touchdown.
12.8 Yards allowed per punt return this season by the Carolina Panthers, sixth-worst in the league.
Sproles already has one punt return for a touchdown this season, and he’s averaging 15.7 yards per return, third-best in the league.
Philadelphia’s special teams units are among the best in the league since 2014. The three punt return touchdowns are tied for the most in the league in that span, and Philadelphia’s 13.6-yard average is second-best in the NFL.
The Panthers are allowing 12.8 yards per punt return, sixth-worst in the NFL. They’ve already given up a touchdown, on a 74-yard return by the Saints.
Still, the unit has improved since last season, when it ranked last in the league at 15.5 yards allowed per return. That beat the next-worst team by 4 yards.
Last week against the Seahawks, Nortman did well facing dangerous returner Tyler Lockett. He hit a long punt of 59 yards and had an average net of 43 yards on his five punts. Lockett returned four punts for 28 yards.
“A lot of things were working,” Nortman said. “I hit the ball well. Good direction, good hang time. Our guys covered really well against a dangerous returner, especially against a Seahawks unit that takes pride in their special teams. That returner has had a lot of impact on the season so far so I was glad that we were able to neutralize him.”
This week brings another challenge in Sproles, and Nortman says he’s up for it.
“It makes my job – I wouldn’t say more fun – but I’d say I’m eager to step up to the challenge,” he said. “There are good returners almost every week. When it’s a challenge like that and everyone’s a little more dialed in, that’s what football is all about.”