CHARLOTTE – During their Week 2 loss in Atlanta, the Panthers allowed five pass plays of 20-plus yards. In Sunday’s rematch, Carolina seemed to have things shored up – at least in the first half.
The Falcons’ only completion that cracked 20 yards in the first two quarters was a 32-yard reception by tight end Austin Hooper.
But on the first play of the third quarter, it happened. The Panthers allowed another big play over the top – a problem that’s haunted them in 2018, especially during what’s now a seven-game losing streak.
“The corner and the safety went to the same area and left me wide open,” said Falcons wideout Calvin Ridley, who was 10 yards from the nearest defender when he hauled in a Matt Ryan pass that Ridley ran in for a 75-yard score to give the Falcons a lead they’d never give up.
At first glance, many may have believed rookie cornerback Donte Jackson was responsible for Ridley. But that deep half was supposed to be covered by safety Mike Adams, a 15-year veteran who came crashing down on Ryan’s play-action fake.
“You can’t do that. You are a deep back safety. You have to hold your depth and stay deep. That was unfortunate,” head coach Ron Rivera said.
“I thought that was a call that was built for that type of play, and unfortunately we didn’t execute it.”
But like against the Steelers, Seahawks and Browns, the Panthers didn’t just allow one long pass play. They gave up two.
Later in the third quarter, Mohamed Sanu came screaming across the middle of the field before catching a Ryan pass that went for a 44-yard score. Because Captain Munnerlyn was chasing Sanu, it appeared Munnerlyn let his man get behind him. But Munnerlyn’s assignment was to guard against curls and anything in the flat.
“I was dropping back in my coverage and he was running wide open. I can't tell you what happened,” Munnerlyn said.
“It wasn't my play, put it like that.”
After the commercial break following the touchdown, FOX cameras caught Munnerlyn in a heated exchange with his closest friend on the roster, linebacker Thomas Davis. According to Munnerlyn, he had asked why one of the linebackers didn’t follow Sanu downfield.
“That's like my big brother, man,” Munnerlyn said of Davis. “He's shown me the ropes since I got here. It wasn't no love lost there.
“He was just explaining to me what happened on that play to him. Me being the guy that I am, I was just frustrated. Frustrated because big plays kept happening. Nobody should be running in the middle of our defense wide open.”
Yet since that fateful Thursday night in Pittsburgh, opponents have been wide open far too often.
By definition, the Panthers have actually cut down on the number of “big pass plays” (commonly referred to as completions of 20-plus yards) the past two months. They’ve allowed 20 such plays over their past seven games after giving up 30 in their first eight.
But the big passes of late have had much bigger consequences.
Of those 30 completions of 20-plus yards the Panthers allowed during the first two months of the season, only three went for 40-plus yards. And just one – Odell Beckham Jr.’s 57-yard trick play to Saquon Barkley for the Giants in Week 5 – went for a touchdown.
But over this seven-game stretch, nine of those 20 completions of 20-plus yards have stretched into 40-plus-yard gains. That's a league-high nine such plays, including five that turned into touchdowns.
“I don't even know how to explain it, for real,” cornerback James Bradberry said. “Of course, I've been a part of some of those deep ball plays. That's what (loses) games is making the same mistakes over and over again.”
And when those mistakes happen over and over again, a solid start can turn into a second half to forget.
“6-2 - everything was going right for us. Then we just kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” Munnerlyn said.
“You take some of those big plays away, I think we have a different record. We always believe around here if you can stop the big plays, you win football games. No offense wants to dink and dunk all the way down the field. When those big plays happen, they kill your momentum and kill you on defense.”