The Panthers credited their December turnaround in part to their youth movement in the defensive backfield.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott got more speed in the back end of his defense with safety Tre Boston and cornerback Bené Benwikere’s return from injury, and Carolina’s defense flourished in the final four games of the season and into the playoffs.
But the rookies were covering the receivers who scored Seattle’s first two touchdowns Saturday in what became a 31-17 victory for the Seahawks in the NFC divisional round game.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera gave credit to Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson for good ball placement, and on both plays the rookies were just out of reach to disrupt the play.
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“We had a blitz on in the first touchdown they scored,” Rivera said. “Tre was in pretty good position. He lost sight of the ball, and they made a nice play. Bené same thing. We were in good position, he lost sight of the ball, and they made a big play. Give them credit for the play, a couple of nice throws and nice catches.”
On third-and-9 from the Carolina 16 near the end of the first quarter, Wilson anticipated the blitz coming. Out of the shotgun, he took the snap and lofted it to the end zone for Doug Baldwin, who stuttered-stepped inside the 10 and froze Boston.
Boston had what Rivera refers to as dirty eyes, where he kept one eye on the quarterback and another on his man. That led to Boston freezing and Baldwin getting behind him for the first touchdown of the game.
“I was looking in the backfield to see if Russell got rid of the ball,” Boston said. “It’s frustrating because that’s technique. We preach technique here. So for me to do that, it happens.”
Boston, a fourth-round selection out of North Carolina, had his two worst games of the season against the Seahawks. During the Week 8 game in Charlotte, Boston let tight end Luke Willson get past him before recognizing a seam play.
The touchdown was the only one of the game in Seattle’s 13-9 win.
Boston said this week that he was able to move on from that play with the help of his coaches and teammates, and since taking over for Thomas DeCoud at free safety, he hadn’t allowed another big play.
Boston had two interceptions in Carolina’s previous two games, including one returned for a touchdown in Atlanta.
“Just a good, I guess, throw and good catch,” Boston said. “I could have played it a little better. They got the touchdown. It didn’t hurt us. We knew what we had to do.”
Benwikere also couldn’t track the ball on the touchdown he gave up. Wilson found Jermaine Kearse on third down – a down on which Wilson was 8 for 8 Saturday – over Benwikere’s outstretched arms.
Kearse used a veteran stiff arm to create enough separation from Benwikere, a fifth-round pick out of San Jose State, and ran the rest of the way for a 63-yard score to make it 14-7. Benwikere had no problem with the stiff arm.
“I could feel his arm, but at the same time I don’t know if he really pushed off,” Benwikere said. “I was trying to track the ball. As I’m trying to track the ball, I’m not worried about what he’s doing. The quarterback was able to float it just a little bit past where I could get my hands on it, and he made a great catch.”
Veteran safety Roman Harper said his advice to the rookies – two players he believes have bright futures in the league – was to shake it off.
“Just keep playing,” Harper said. “Don’t worry about nothing. It’s not a perfect game played by perfect people. Guys are going to have mishaps. We’ve got to do better by getting there pressure-wise.
“At the end of the day, it’s all right. We continued to play through anything they threw at us all year long. We continue to keep pounding.”