One gutsy roster move saved Panthers’ season
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The move Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera made immediately following an embarrassing loss to Minnesota on Nov. 30, seemed irrelevant at the time.
Now, it’s one of the main reasons a lost season was saved.
In that game against the Vikings — in which Carolina lost 31-13 — cornerback Antoine Cason was burned and fooled time and time again by the Minnesota receivers. In reality, that’s pretty much how the entire season had gone for Cason, who was a starter after signing as a free agent during the offseason.
Analytically speaking, Cason was one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL.
Upon returning to Charlotte, Cason was cut by the Panthers, which meant that rookie Bene’ Benwikere was thrust into the starting lineup, opposite of Josh Norman, who also went into training camp as a reserve.
As a result of Benwikere moving into the lineup with four weeks to play, the secondary has been revamped and has new life. It has gone from being one of the worst in the NFL to a faster and more physical secondary.
More importantly, it’s a better pass-defending secondary, too.
That same week following Minnesota, fellow rookie Tre Boston moved into the starting spot at free safety.
The moves to cut Cason and insert Benwikere and Boston into the starting lineup were the final attempts to try to find a defensive backfield that could actually stop a pass, cover a receiver and tackle. Up until that point, the Panthers had pretty much failed to do any of them.
Now that the defensive backfield has been stabilized with Norman, Benwikere and Boston joining veteran Roman Harper, who has started all season at strong safety, Carolina’s defense is looking very similar to the way it did last season, which was good enough to be the second-best in the NFL.
With confidence in the secondary comes the ability to blitz more, which in turn creates more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, resulting in more offensive miscues. When teams blitz that have poor secondaries, they become extremely exposed and big plays are usually the result.
The improved secondary has also had an effect on the offense, too. Because the secondary has made the defense much better, which has prevented the opposition from scoring tons of points, it means the offense isn’t trying to play catch-up. This has allowed offensive coordinator Mike Shula to stick to the game plan that helped the team win 12 games last season — run, run, run.
The Panthers’ offense wants to control the clock, run as much as possible, and commit very few mistakes. It can afford not to gamble with risky plays and passes because the coaching staff knows even if Carolina has to punt, odds are it’s going to get the ball back relatively soon.
And maybe even close to scoring range because of a created turnover.
Carolina has forced nine turnovers during its four-game winning streak, while at the same time only committing three.
It’s a simple formula: A very safe offense and an aggressive defense.
And a big reason why Carolina’s resurgence has transpired when the season was all but over. It can be traced to the simple move of cutting one veteran and inserting two rookies.