CHARLOTTE – Because of a knee injury suffered by linebacker Omar Gaither, the Panthers will feature a different starting defense for the sixth time in as many weeks when they visit the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Gaither is expected to miss two to four weeks after spraining his knee in the first half of Sunday's 30-27 loss to the New Orleans Saints, head coach Ron Rivera said Monday.
Even though the Panthers won't start the same 11 against Atlanta, Rivera said the unit still is slowly moving toward a sense of cohesiveness. It helps in this case that Gaither is expected to be replaced in the starting lineup by Jason Williams, who already has started two games this season.
"Hopefully we'll get the same group out there defensively this week, and hopefully we can grow and work on some things we haven't been able to do yet," Rivera said.
The Panthers lost linebacker Jon Beason for the season in Week 1 with an Achilles injury, then they lost linebacker Thomas Davis for the season in Week 2 with a knee injury. Safety Charles Godfrey missed Week 3 and cornerback Chris Gamble missed Week 4 – both with head injuries.
The Panthers have nine players – including three defensive starters - on injured reserve. Their first six opponents have an average of 3.5 players on injured reserve.
"To the credit of our personnel department, they've given us some players to plug in there, like Jason stepping in there when Omar went down," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "The biggest impact is felt with continuity, that there's not a rapport that's been built from a week-to-week standpoint.
"Being able to play off of one another and play fast, that's the biggest impact."
EVEN HINDSIGHT ISN'T ALWAYS 20-20: If Rivera had the decision to make all over again, he said he wouldn't have called the timeout at the end of the first half Sunday that allowed the Saints to get settled before John Kasay booted a 46-yard field goal.
But even if he hadn't called timeout, the Saints may well have still scored those crucial three points.
"I would hate to have been wrong either way, but unfortunately either way got me," Rivera said. "I'll live with it. Unfortunately the players have to too, and it's not fair to them."
Rivera expressed that sentiment to his players.
"That's the kind of coach he is. He's going to take responsibility when he feels there's something he could have done better," tight end Greg Olsen said. "That's not why we lost. There were a lot of things that a lot of us could have done to have a different outcome."
The Saints used their final timeout of the first half with 18 seconds left, facing a fourth-and-20 from Carolina's 40-yard line. Running back Darren Sproles picked up 12 yards on a pass play but was tackled inbounds with about 12 seconds left.
Both teams rushed their field goal units on, but with two seconds left, the Panthers called timeout. Rivera feared that a couple of players sprinting off the field hadn't yet made it to the sidelines.
"It was close," Rivera said Monday after having a chance to review the play. "I looked at the wide angle, looked at the tight angle, looked at the TV copy, and it's right there."
Television replays showed that the Saints snapped the ball just before the clock went to zero. Kasay didn't seem to be fully in place to address the ball, but he might not have been ready simply because he appeared to be the first player to react to the whistle signaling the Panthers' timeout.
Had the Panthers not called timeout and the snap came in time, the Saints could have gotten a second chance if Kasay had missed the mark – if officials ruled that the Panthers had too many men on the field.
Rivera, if given a second chance as to whether to take the timeout, said he "probably wouldn't have called it and just see what happens."
ROOKIE RETURNS: Rookie wide receiver Kealoha Pilares touched the ball in a regular season game for the first time Sunday, fielding the opening kickoff and returning it 15 yards.
"You always expect to take it to the house with every opportunity you have, but I thought I did a pretty good job out there," said Pilares, who later returned one 21 yards. "I thought I did all right – could have been better."
Rivera feels like the return game can be better as well. Third-year running back Mike Goodson has been the Panthers' principle kick returner for the majority of his pro career, but Rivera gave safety Jordan Pugh a couple of return opportunities late in Week 5 at Chicago.
Goodson was inactive against New Orleans.
"He was sick the first couple of days, and he didn't have as good a day against the Bears as we would have liked," Rivera said. "I've talked to him and put the challenge to him, so we'll see how things develop."
Goodson, a shifty back who has had difficulty hanging onto the ball at times, is hoping for another shot.
"I'm behind two good guys at running back, so those reps are going to be limited off the top," he said. "Then with the kick return game, we haven't really had a lot of production, so that's more what the challenge is – to get more production out of that unit."