Scott Fowler

Can Carolina Panthers’ shortcomings in secondary be solved?

If the Carolina Panthers’ secondary isn’t better than it was Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers’ season isn’t salvageable.
If the Carolina Panthers’ secondary isn’t better than it was Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers’ season isn’t salvageable. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Carolina Panthers are sorting through the debris of a Sunday in which they became the first NFL team ever to allow both a 500-yard quarterback and a 300-yard receiver on the same afternoon. But what if they are looking for something that isn’t there?

“I think we should be better than we are,” head coach Ron Rivera said Monday. “I really do.”

But right now the Panthers’ secondary looks like one of the worst in the NFL after giving up 503 yards passing to Matt Ryan and 300 receiving to Julio Jones Sunday in a 48-33 loss to Atlanta. And without a stellar pass rush to hide the flaws, there’s not a lot Carolina (1-3) can do except hope their young players in the secondary get better quickly.

It’s not going to matter who is playing quarterback – Cam Newton is questionable for Monday night’s home game against Tampa Bay with a concussion – if you are giving up 48 points.

Carolina had one play that gained more than 30 yards Sunday. Atlanta had six, with four of them being passes to Julio Jones (of 75, 53, 43 and 32 yards).

Although some fans like to believe this is just a Josh Norman problem, that’s too simplistic. Certainly he would have helped. As I wrote when the Panthers rescinded their franchise tag in April I wish they had kept Norman for one more season under the tag.

But Norman has nothing to do with the free safety position, for instance. Tre Boston is botching his chance at a starting role badly enough that Carolina started Colin Jones in place of Boston and used Jones on most first and second downs early in the game.

Then, when Jones obviously was no help on pass plays, Carolina ended up playing Michael Griffin 51 percent of the time at the free safety position Sunday.

Think about that for a second. Griffin was only signed last week, and had his first practice Wednesday. And then he got more than half of the 67 defensive snaps, playing 34 (Boston ended up with 23 and Jones had 10). That’s the kind of thing a desperate team does, and it’s one example of how bad it has gotten for Carolina’s defense.

Breathless?

Here’s another: after James Bradberry literally stubbed his toe early while trying to chase Julio Jones around, Carolina started using Bené Benwikere as an outside cornerback.

Benwikere was overmatched against Jones, of course, like everyone was. But it was also obvious that on some plays Benwikere would either just stopped running or could only get himself into third gear as Jones and other players sped away from him.

Benwikere admitted after the game: “At least for me, that’s one thing I need to do is just go back and get more conditioned. Because I started out doing well. But it’s kind of like after that, I started to get tired and get out of breath.”

Seriously?

That’s what training camp is for, and no one is going to suddenly be able to get in way better shape at this point in the season.

Carolina should have devoted two players to Jones on every play after the first drive, of course, but stubbornly stuck to a game plan that even Jones couldn’t believe. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said there was supposed to be more attention paid to Jones, but it sure didn’t look like it. And when there was supposed to be help over the top, Kurt Coleman and whomever was playing free safety at the time invariably arrived two steps late.

No easy fix

So can that really be solved?

The hard truth is, maybe not.

Either Carolina’s pass rush is going to have to get way better – Ryan constantly took deep drops Sunday and was only sacked three times – or the secondary is going to have to improve significantly and in a hurry. Otherwise, Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston and Mike Evans are about to make all their fantasy football owners very happy Monday night, and the Panthers are going to fall to 1-4.

Like Rivera, I thought the Panthers would be better, too. Way better.

But maybe we were all looking at a puzzle that never had quite all the pieces and just letting our mind play tricks on us, filling in all the gaps to make a whole.

Yes, the Panthers were 1-3 in 2013 and ended up 12-4.

But unless this team finds some hope in the back end of the defense, that’s not going to happen again.

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