Perhaps there’s no more matchup more concerning for Carolina Panthers’ fans than their team’s secondary against the Arizona Cardinals’ receivers.
Cornerback Josh Norman can hold his own, but what about Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan? Those two guys weren’t even playing football at Thanksgiving and now they’re starting in the defensive backfield in the NFC Championship Game.
Meanwhile the Cardinals boast a receiving group that has a future Hall of Famer in Larry Fitzgerald, a speedster in John Brown and another big-play threat in Michael Floyd. And they’re getting passes thrown to them by Carson Palmer, who would likely be the NFL MVP if not for Cam Newton this season.
If it was just one guy, you feel pretty good about it. They do a great job of spreading it around.
Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott
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“We know the hardest thing about their offense is they’re not just driven by one guy,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “Obviously Larry does a heck of a job, a lot of respect for his game and how they ride Larry. The hardest part about defending them is they spread the ball around. It goes vertical to Brown and to Floyd and to (J.J. Nelson). If it was just one guy, you feel pretty good about it. They do a great job of spreading it around.”
Carolina’s defensive backs struggled against Seattle’s Russell Wilson in the second half of last week’s victory. If Wilson wasn’t targeting McClain, he was going at Finnegan. Even when he went at Norman, Wilson was 5-for-5 with a short touchdown.
Finnegan, a 10-year veteran, had a good first half but did not play well in the second half. He said he needs to work on being more aware of what the offense wants to do and not let them take advantage of him.
“Maybe not getting as deep on some plays or you hug up on a guy a little more,” Finnegan said. “Paying more attention to detail that I really need to focus on, especially when we get a lead like that because we know the offense is going to have drives. They’re going to push the ball. There may be one play where you’re tired and you’re out of your zone. You’ve just got to hone in.”
Finnegan on Fitzgerald, a lot
Finnegan has the unenviable assignment of covering Fitzgerald in the slot, where the receiver has played about 60 percent of the time this season. In his eight playoff games, Fitzgerald has five games of 100 receiving yards or more, including last week’s 176-yard game against the Packers in the overtime win.
“I think he can make you miss but I think where he thrives at is route running and separation,” said Finnegan, who is 6 inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than Fitzgerald. “He’s a big man and you’ve got to know how to get him on the ground for sure. He’s a future Hall of Famer so there’s not a lot he can’t do.”
But Finnegan won’t be the only one lined up with Fitzgerald. He could slide outside and match up against Norman. And even when he’s in the slot there could be help.
When the Panthers are in zone, a linebacker like Luke Kuechly could come over and help Finnegan on Fitzgerald.
“It’s understanding and doing the techniques more than anything because a lot of things we do, you can get help,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “That’s important.”
McClain targeted often by Seahawks
McClain will likely be matched up against Brown, a second-year receiver, for most of the game. According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson targeted McClain 14 times last week for seven receptions, 63 yards and a touchdown.
The touchdown, a 13-yard pass to Jermaine Kearse, came when McClain played the wrong technique. Rather than squeezing the receiver to the sideline like he did earlier in the game, he allowed Kearse to get some separation and catch the ball cleanly.
Now McClain faces a speedy, shifty receiver in Brown. When McClain was trying out for teams he trained at a local park and regularly ran on trails with his dog Melo, a German Shepherd mix.
“There’d be times I’d be throwing the tennis ball with him and he’ll be trying to play keep away and that was working my press technique with him,” McClain joked. “He’s pretty quick and fast.”
With perhaps 50 attempts, a Palmer mistake?
The Cardinals dropped back to pass 44 times last week against the Packers, and Norman expects Arizona to throw the ball at least 50 times this week. Palmer had two interceptions and was close to throwing two more last week, but that won’t necessarily carry over to this week.
“I’m sure he’s not going to make those mistakes this game,” Norman said. “But if he does I’m going to try to capitalize. I know this is a different week this week and he’s going to try to take care of the ball better, but if he sees something and it’s open I’m sure he’s going to take it.
“And if I see something that’s open, I’m going to take it.”