Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott emerged from the coaches box at the Superdome, walked down the hallway toward the elevator for the locker room and let out a yell.
Before he boarded the elevator to celebrate with the team, he stopped by a flat-screen TV that showed the game’s stats. He saw his defense held the league’s second-best offense to 310 total yards in the 41-10 win against the Saints.
“Long time comin’ ,” McDermott said aloud to his fellow coaches.
It had been two months since the Panthers’ last won, and the defense has not matched 2013, when Carolina was second-best in the league. Entering Sunday, Carolina had the 17th-ranked defense, but the Panthers looked much more like the 2013 iteration than what they’ve put on the field this season.
The Panthers held the Saints more than 100 yards below their season average, forced two turnovers and nearly held Drew Brees without a touchdown for the first time in two years.
Panthers safety Roman Harper, who played in New Orleans for eight years, admitted he didn’t imagine the defense would be able to do what they did against the Saints.
“No, man,” Harper said. “How many times has Drew Brees not thrown three touchdowns in the dome? It just doesn’t happen. Whether you win or lose, Drew always puts up his numbers and they always get touchdowns. For three and a half, four quarters we had them on lock. I hate we gave up that last one but it happens.”
Brees finished with 235 passing yards, with 29 completions in 49 attempts. His lone touchdown came with less than six minutes remaining as the Panthers played backup linebackers and a cornerback (Melvin White) who hadn’t played in the past two games.
What Carolina did to the Saints to start the game was thoroughly demoralizing. In their first three possessions, New Orleans ran six offensive plays.
Down 7-0 and on their second play of the game, Mark Ingram fumbled on a short pass from Drew Brees. Cornerback Josh Norman caused the fumble when he poked the ball out of Ingram’s grasp from behind.
“I wanted to … force him back to my sharks,” Norman said. “When I did that I knew I wanted to hold on and my hand got in there a little bit and hit the ball. It came out and I was ecstatic. That was a play that I felt we needed to give the ball back to the offense. Once they got going, shoot, we just settled in and kept playing ball.”
The Saints would get the ball back after a Carolina field goal, but a deep pass from Brees to Joseph Morgan was intercepted by rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere.
Benwikere, getting his first start at cornerback after the Panthers cut Antoine Cason last week, made up for fellow rookie Tre Boston mistiming his leap by cutting in front of Morgan and intercepting the ball.
That play, and subsequent play from the secondary, reinforced Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s decision to have a youth movement in recent weeks.
“I thought Bené is showing he’s the kind of player we thought he is: a smart player that understands defenses and how to play certain techniques,” Rivera said. “I thought he did a really good job. Tre showed us his physicality knocking the ball loose a couple of times with receivers in front of him. We’ve just got to continue to work with these young guys and develop. I think these young guys can keep it rolling and give us a chance.”
By the time the Saints got the ball back they were down 17-0 at home and headed for their fourth consecutive loss at home. Brees’ late touchdown pushed his streak of games with at least one touchdown pass to 29, but it was only after the home crowd booed the team mercilessly for much of the second half.
“They have an amazing fan base and you come in here and it’s loud. It’s real loud,” Norman said. “And when you come in here and can hear crickets or hear everyone booing, as an opponent that’s awesome. That’s the greatest feeling you can ever have knowing you whipped some tail.”