When the Carolina Panthers secondary takes the field Sunday against Green Bay, strong safety Roman Harper will be the only defensive back who started last year against the Packers.
“Crazy, huh?” Harper said.
Aaron Rodgers sliced up the Panthers secondary in the Packers’ 38-17 victory. The two-time MVP completed 19 of 22 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns and finished with the second-highest passer rating (154.4) of his career.
But as they prepared for the Packers this week, the members of Carolina’s secondary didn’t sweat last year’s performance too much because most of them either weren’t on the team or didn’t play that day.
Of the four defensive backs who started alongside Harper when the Panthers opened in a nickel package at Lambeau Field, only Charles Godfrey – now a backup safety in Atlanta – is still on an active NFL roster.
We didn’t play up to our potential. That’s why changes are made. We’ve gotten better since then. We’re a different personality.
Carolina Panthers safety Roman Harper, on the 38-17 loss to Green Bay in 2014
Cornerback Antoine Cason and safety Thomas DeCoud are out of the league, and corner Melvin White is on St. Louis’ practice squad.
“Last year was last year. It was a completely different team, a completely different mentality,” Harper said. “This year we’re a more confident group. We’re a better group. This is probably the best talent-wise Carolina team I’ve seen since I’ve been in the league, and I’ve seen this team all 10 years.”
The loss at Green Bay was the start of a six-game losing streak that prompted the Panthers to make late-season changes at wide receiver and in the secondary. The team waived Cason in December and cut DeCoud shortly after the season ended.
The overhaul in the defensive backfield continued during the offseason when the Panthers signed veterans Charles Tillman and Kurt Coleman, who became immediate starters at corner and free safety.
And while the ascension of fourth-year corner Josh Norman has dominated the discussions of the Carolina secondary through the first half of the season, it has taken more than one player to help the Panthers become the league’s seventh-ranked passing defense (allowing 228.9 yards per game).
“I think people need to know one man doesn’t make the team,” Tillman said. “To credit J-No’s success, a lot of his success comes from what other people have done. He’s the one getting the spotlight, rightfully so. (But the) D-line and coverage, we go hand-in-hand. It’s a marriage.”
That marriage was more like a broken union last year in Green Bay, where the Panthers sacked Rodgers only twice. Rodgers had a clean pocket most of the game, giving him time to find the holes in the Panthers’ zone coverages and run up a near perfect passer rating.
The Carolina defenders usually were nowhere close to Green Bay’s receivers: The Panthers finished with no pass breakups against Rodgers.
Harper was asked this week if the loss at Lambeau was the low point of the 2014 season.
“There was a lot of lows,” Harper said. “We didn’t play up to our potential. That’s why changes are made. We’ve gotten better since then. We’re a different personality. We’re a different team. You can’t really just always look back at last year and talk about that. We’re moving forward and we’ve been able to do that.”
Norman ‘a great player’
The biggest change in the Panthers’ secondary this season has been the emergence of Norman, who is second in the NFL with four interceptions, including two he’s returned for touchdowns.
Norman, who’s in a contract year, has become one of the league’s top cover corners. Seattle and Philadelphia didn’t throw his way, and last week Norman helped hold Indianapolis receiver T.Y. Hilton to a season-low one reception for 15 yards.
“He’s a great player. He does it all outside. He’s athletic, he can press, he can play off, make some plays on the football. He’s a talented guy,” Rodgers said. “You’ve got to be aware of where he is. There are a few corners in the league who are like him where you have to be aware of where they are, how they’re playing and what type of coverage they’re playing, and try not to throw them the football.”
Norman had similar praise for Rodgers, the league’s third-highest rated passer this season behind Tom Brady and Andy Dalton.
“A-Rod, I can’t say enough about that guy. He’s a guy that if you’re looking for a franchise quarterback, he’ll come to the top of your mind,” Norman said. “His mobility is superb. His pocket presence is unreal. His throwing on the run is the greatest. When you’ve got a guy like that who has an arm that can make any throw. ... I’m going to have to plaster all night.”
Norman was a healthy scratch last year at Green Bay. He was cleared in the concussion protocol late in the week, but Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn’t think he’d had enough practice reps.
The Panthers also were missing nickel back Bené Benwikere, who was out with a high ankle sprain.
While Carolina’s offense started the game with back-to-back three-and-outs, Green Bay scored on its first three possessions to jump out to a 21-0 lead and never looked back.
Harper intercepted Rodgers on the Packers’ first drive, but it was nullified by two defensive penalties on the Panthers – an offsides call on linebacker Luke Kuechly and holding by DeCoud.
Two plays after the penalties gave him new life, Rodgers threw down the right sideline for Jordy Nelson, who got behind Cason and juked Harper for a 59-yard touchdown.
The Packers lost Nelson to a season-ending knee injury in August, leaving them without a premiere speed receiver to stretch the field.
After being throttled by Denver, the league’s top defense, in a 29-10 loss last week, Green Bay comes to Charlotte with the league’s 27th-ranked passing offense at 210.1 yards a game.
In the wake of Nelson’s injury, the Packers brought back wideout James Jones for a second stint. Jones, 6-1 and 208 pounds, ranks among the league leaders with six touchdown catches and seven receptions of at least 25 yards.
“Honestly, I think Jordy’s one of the best wide receivers in this game. And being able to take him out of that offense, it does hurt them,” said Coleman, the Panthers’ free safety. “But I think James Jones has come in and really been a big target. Obviously, very familiar with the offense.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s a replacement for Jordy. But I definitely think he’s been a big pickup for them in that offense.”
Broncos busted Rodgers
The Packers have been one of the league’s most productive offenses with Rodgers behind center.
But Rodgers is coming off one of the worst games of an almost certain Hall-of-Fame career. The Broncos sacked Rodgers three times and held him to 77 yards, the lowest in any game he’s finished.
Coleman said finding a way to keep Rodgers off-balance is critical.
“When you let Aaron really get a good rhythm, that’s when he’s really dangerous,” said Coleman, the former Eagles and Chiefs safety. “I think a great example is Denver last week – not getting him in a rhythm, getting him off his spot, putting people in his face and then matching up with their (receivers).”
While Rodgers struggled last week, the Panthers’ secondary is coming off a strong performance against the Colts’ Andrew Luck – at least for the first 3 1/2 quarters.
Carolina broke up 14 of Luck’s 47 passes, including 10 deflections by the defensive backs.
But the Panthers let Indianapolis rally from a 17-point deficit to force overtime. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said the Colts’ comeback was fueled by a combination of a disappearing pass rush and poor technique in the secondary.
On back-to-back plays on the Colts’ game-tying drive, Luck threw deep for second-year wideout Donte Moncrief, who was covered by Tillman. Both times the 34-year-old Tillman had good coverage and forced incompletions.
Coleman, who had an interception and three pass breakups against the Colts, said Tillman showed his veteran savvy at the end of the Colts’ game.
“You don’t always have to be as fast as the guy you’re going against. Technique will take care of a lot of the issues and playing the hands when the ball’s in the air, it really defeats a lot of things,” Coleman said. “He’s a great guy at being able to play the hands, watch his eyes and play him. It came up big in that game.”
More veteran savvy
The Panthers will have to come up big to stop Rodgers, who hasn’t lost back-to-back, regular-season games in the same season in four years.
And while Rodgers will be looking to avenge the poor showing in Denver, the Panthers’ secondary is seeking a measure of payback, too.
“The numbers don’t lie. He is one of the best and is the best for a reason,” Harper said. “It’s going to be a challenge for us. I’m expecting our guys to step up and rise to the occasion.”