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Piecing together a defense for New Orleans game

Yetur Gross-Matos

CHARLOTTE — Oh by the way, the Panthers have to play a football game Sunday.

And that means scratching together what's left of a defense, and trying to figure out how to game plan a Saints team with its own degree of uncertainty.

Between injuries and the team's COVID-19 outbreak, the Panthers are extremely short-handed on defense this week. They're not getting any apologies from the Saints (who were without 22 players last week), but it's impossible to overstate the pinch the Panthers are in at the moment.

Top pass-rushers Haason Reddick and Brian Burns are on the COVID list (they have 20.0 of the team's 36.0 sacks), along with linebacker Shaq Thompson. Veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore isn't expected to play this week because of a groin injury, leaving defensive coordinator Phil Snow trying to make soup with the leftovers in the back of the fridge. They only had 20 defensive players on the active roster Thursday, and that included Gilmore.

"That's always hard. With this league, you're going to have injuries every week. Something's going on personnel-wise every week," Snow said. "So we're all used to it. We'll play with who we have, and hopefully, play well."

The absences do create a bit of a hash, especially up front. Aside from Burns and Reddick, the Panthers placed backup defensive ends Marquis Haynes Sr. and Darryl Johnson on the COVID list this week.

While some of them could be activated, Snow was out there practicing this week with Morgan Fox, Yetur Gross-Matos, and Azur Kamara at the position. Kamara was claimed off waivers from Dallas two weeks ago and tested positive as soon as he got here, so this is his first week of practice with the team.

"Around here, we have a next-man-up mentality, and everybody's got to be prepared to the Carolina Panthers standard no matter who goes down," Gross-Matos said. "I know everybody else is going to be prepared as well as myself for whatever role that might be."

The Panthers are fortunate to have some versatile players among their remaining defenders. Still, Snow said the plan was to leave Jeremy Chinn at safety this week, rather than returning him to linebacker. Their middle linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr.'s still there, but they'll fill in around him with a number of guys who are mostly special teamers.

Carter had the benefit of playing all three linebacker spots at different junctures of his career, so cross-training is nothing new to him. Now, the whole team is doing it at once.

"We'll see how it goes, but I'm pretty much open to everything," Carter said. "I think I could go out there and do my job at a high level no matter what position I'm playing. I'm just looking forward to making it to Sunday and being able to play with my teammates.

"I don't think it limits us because we have so many versatile guys. We've got so many guys who can do so many things I think we still have a full deck of cards, and we'll see how it plays Sunday."

The Panthers have moved players around the defense all year — that position-less football they like to talk about is easier when guys like Burns and Reddick are on the field.

But Snow said that between Gross-Matos (who can play inside or outside) and Frankie Luvu (who can pass-rush or play as a coverage linebacker when needed) and Chinn, they have some options.

But in the absence of a full complement of players, Snow said he was trying not to overcomplicate things.

"Well, what we're trying to do is not do that (moving players around) very much. Make guys comfortable in what they're doing so they can play fast," Snow said. "We've asked them to do a few different things this week, but nothing out of the ordinary that they're not used to doing. So hopefully, we can not put too much on their plate.

"You'd like to have as many starters that you can possibly have up every week. So when you're missing four or five starters, no matter what team it is, that's always going to affect your performance. We expect the guys that come in to play to our standard, and hopefully, they will."

The Panthers trail the all-time series against the Saints, 27-29. Carolina has played New Orleans more than any other team in its history.

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