NFC South: Haruki Nakamura

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC South team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Atlanta Falcons: Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson left via free agency, but the Falcons made up for it in the draft, using their first-round pick on Desmond Trufant and their second-rounder on Robert Alford. Trufant and Alford are fine prospects, but rookie cornerbacks often struggle initially. Atlanta’s pass rush should be just average at best. Trufant is the likely starter opposite Asante Samuel. Samuel offers little against the run, but is still a very good cover man and a true ball hawk at the corner position. Another cornerback here of note is Robert McClain, who got little fanfare for his work last season but performed admirably for the Falcons. Atlanta might now have four quality options at this position. At safety, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore return as the starters. There is little behind these two, but DeCoud and Moore are a fine pairing. Moore in particular stepped up his all-around game last season and is quickly becoming a do-it-all player and a key member of this defense.

Carolina Panthers: By drafting two defensive tackles with their first two picks, the Panthers look as though they have a fantastic front seven. But their secondary still really worries me. Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore were added at cornerback, but that simply isn’t enough to elevate concerns about the back end of Carolina’s defense. Chris Gamble is out of the picture, leaving Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn as the Panthers’ starting corners, although Florence could factor into that equation. Norman had a very up-and-down -- mostly down -- 2012 season, but he does have ability and could be primed to take a step forward in 2013. Munnerlyn, who is best equipped to be a slot cornerback, is probably the Panthers’ best defensive back. Josh Thomas has been underwhelming throughout his career and will provide cornerback depth. Carolina is one of the weakest teams in the league at the safety position. Charles Godfrey will start for sure, and Haruki Nakamura is likely to be the other stating safety. Godfrey is average in coverage and isn’t much of a force in the run game, but he is the best the Panthers have right now. Nakamura should be a backup, but he will most likely be forced to log a lot of snaps. Carolina should be scouring the waiver wire for secondary help, especially at safety.

New Orleans Saints: The Saints made two prominent additions to a secondary that struggled mightily in 2012 by signing cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round. Lewis and Jabari Greer will be the Saints’ starters, with Patrick Robinson as the nickel corner, which is what suits him best. But overall, this looks like a solid trio of cornerbacks for New Orleans’ new 3-4 defense, which should stress more press man coverage, although Lewis is probably better suited to zone or off coverage. Roman Harper remains on the team right now, but his type of in-the-box safety who is a liability in coverage is starting to become a dinosaur in this league. Replacing him with Vaccaro gives the Saints much more flexibility from the position. Vaccaro is a great-looking prospect with size, range and physicality. Malcolm Jenkins also has some versatility to his game in that he can patrol the deep middle or walk up and play man coverage against a slot receiver or tight end. However, Jenkins has never quite lived up to his first-round status. Jim Leonhard also is on the roster and could provide stability in a part-time role or as a replacement if Vaccaro or Jenkins were to fall to injury. This secondary looks to be much improved from a year ago.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs made one of the biggest moves around the league this offseason by trading for Darrelle Revis. Tampa Bay featured some of the worst starting corners in the league last season. With Revis on board, that certainly will not be the case again -- even if Revis is not quite himself initially after his knee injury. Having Revis allows the Bucs to match up an elite cover man on the opposing No. 1 wide receiver and more or less leave Revis alone against the likes of Marques Colston, Steve Smith and Julio Jones or Roddy White. By doing so, the rest of the secondary obviously can manipulate coverage to better deal with other threatening weapons. That means Revis’ counterpart, most likely the disappointing Eric Wright or second-round pick Johnthan Banks, will often have safety help over the top. I would imagine Tampa Bay is hoping Banks grabs hold of that starting spot and doesn’t let go. Wright has been a liability since signing a big contract with the Buccaneers. Leonard Johnson also should factor in as a physical quality fourth corner, but he is speed-deficient. Tampa Bay also signed Dashon Goldson, giving them an excellent pairing of safeties along with last year’s first-round selection, Mark Barron. Barron is more of the strong safety type -- and Goldson more of a free safety -- but both can operate near the line of scrimmage or deep in coverage. Expect Barron to take a big step forward in his second season, especially in coverage. Barron could develop into the type of modern defender that matches up well against the new breed of athletic NFL tight ends.
We continue our NFC South look at each team’s weakest link with the Carolina Panthers and their defensive secondary.

When I look at Carolina’s defensive front seven on paper, I think it might be the best in the NFC South. That better hold true and the pass rush better be phenomenal because I don’t see a whole lot of talent in the secondary.

The Panthers did make some moves in free agency by adding safety Mike Mitchell and cornerbacks Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore. The Panthers are hoping Mitchell can beat out Haruki Nakamura for the starting spot opposite Charles Godfrey.

If that happens, the Panthers likely will be slightly better off than they were at safety last season. But the cornerback situation remains very muddled.

Florence and Moore can be decent as No. 2 or 3 cornerbacks. The same can be said for Captain Munnerlyn, Josh Norman, Josh Thomas and James Dockery. But there is no clear-cut No. 1 cornerback on this roster.

Where do you find a No. 1 cornerback this time of year? There aren’t any sitting out there. I know there are some Carolina fans yelling for the Panthers to sign veteran Charles Woodson, but I'm not sure he'd solve all that much at this point in his career.

The way I see this playing out is that the Panthers will go to training camp and throw all those cornerbacks out there. They’ll hope the competition prompts some of the cornerbacks to step up. Maybe several of the corners step up.

But I still see this as an area where the Panthers have taken a big risk by not doing anything more dramatic. If you want to compete against the NFC South’s prolific passing games, I think you need more talent in the secondary than the Panthers have.
Largely due to salary-cap limitations, the Carolina Panthers haven’t made huge changes this offseason. They’ll have a starting lineup similar to what they opened last season with. But the good news is they’ll be getting multiple players back that missed all or much of last season with injuries. Here’s how I see Carolina’s starting lineup headed into the draft.


WR Steve Smith

LT Jordan Gross

LG Amini Silatolu

C Ryan Kalil

RG Geoff Hangartner

RT Byron Bell

TE Greg Olsen

WR Brandon LaFell

QB Cam Newton

RB DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart

FB Mike Tolbert


DE Charles Johnson

DT Dwan Edwards

DT Sione Fua

DE Greg Hardy

OLB Jon Beason

MLB Luke Kuechly

OLB Thomas Davis

CB Drayton Florence or Josh Norman

CB D.J. Moore or Josh Thomas

FS Charles Godfrey

SS Mike Mitchell or Haruki Nakamura

Notes: Carolina needs to come out of this draft with at least two instant starters, probably in the secondary or at defensive tackle. Not a single job in the secondary is completely safe. The Panthers could look to upgrade from Bell in the draft.

Panthers closing in on cap

March, 1, 2013
It’s not as dramatic as the major releases the Atlanta Falcons made Friday morning, but the Carolina Panthers are working toward getting under the salary cap.

They have restructured the contract of safety Haruki Nakamura to free up about $500,000. They also reportedly have restructured the contract of tight end Greg Olsen to free up about $2 million.

The Panthers dropped Nakamura’s cap figure from $1.633 million to $1.115 million. That was accomplished by dropping Nakamura’s base salary from $1.3 million to $715,000. But Nakamura got a $65,000 signing bonus and the Panthers also added a workout bonus of $35,000 to his contract. The new deal also allows Nakamura to earn up to $300,000 more if he meets unspecified playing-time standards. Nakamura had been under contract through 2014, but, under the new deal, he becomes a free agent after the 2013 season.

The Panthers dropped Olsen’s base salary from $3.75 million to $750,000, but gave him a $3 million bonus.

It’s still unclear how much more the Panthers have to trim to get under the cap. But there are more moves coming. Carolina likely will restructure more contracts and cornerback Chris Gamble and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are likely to be released to free up cap room.

Looking at Panthers' defensive snaps

February, 12, 2013
As I’ve been running through playing-time numbers for the 2012 season, I’ve been highlighting the guys who played huge amounts. But, in this post about Carolina’s defense, we’re going to go in the opposite direction.

Injuries were a big story for Carolina, which had 1,051 defensive snaps. But the Panthers were without some key components for most of those snaps. Due to injuries, linebacker Jon Beason was limited to 24.93 percent of the snaps, cornerback Chris Gamble participated in only 26.64 percent of the snaps and defensive tackle Ron Edwards was limited to 29.97 percent.

Here’s the complete breakdown of playing-time percentage for Carolina’s defense:
Dave Gettleman said almost all the right things as he officially was introduced as the general manager of the Carolina Panthers on Tuesday.

He talked about how he’s confident how he can work with coach Ron Rivera and staff the team already has in place. He talked about how his philosophy is similar to that of former general manager Marty Hurney.

“You have to build through the draft," Gettleman said. “You raise your own. You fill in with unrestricted free agents."

And he talked about how his past experiences should help him with the Panthers.

“I’ve learned from some great, great people," Gettleman said. “I feel more than ever with the background I have and the different philosophies I’ve employed and learned from and the different ways there are to build a team that this is absolutely the perfect fit for me."

But the one thing Gettleman didn’t want to talk about was Carolina’s messy salary-cap situation.

“I need more information, very frankly, I’m not going to say something silly," Gettleman said.

All right, let’s give Gettleman some information. The Panthers currently have $131.7 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that’s likely to be around $120 million.

The Panthers have a bunch of veterans with high salary-cap figures. I left out guys like quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly and center Ryan Kalil, who aren’t going anywhere. But here’s a list of guys that Gettleman will have to look at and make decisions on restructuring or releasing:
Gettleman said he soon will begin the process of sitting down with Rivera, the coaching staff and personnel department and making decisions.

“The most important thing you have to do when it comes to the cap is you have to do is put the proper value on the player,’’ Gettleman said. “You get into trouble when you overpay. The litmus test on the cap is when the ink is dry and you’re not happy then you made a mistake.’’

There’s no doubt the Panthers made some mistakes in recent years. While Gettleman emphasized he’ll use a team approach, he said he’s not afraid to make the tough decisions.

“If it’s a situation where I have to make a unilateral decision, that’s part of the gig,’’ Gettleman said.

Gettleman better get used to that in a hurry because Carolina has to make some painful cap decisions between now and March.

Carolina's nightmare cap situation

January, 3, 2013
We took a look at the New Orleans Saints’ salary-cap situation. It’s far from ideal, but at least the Saints have some obvious ways to free up cap space.

But I’m now looking at the numbers for the Carolina Panthers, and it sure looks like they’re in a much worse situation than the Saints. There simply aren’t a lot of easy escape routes for the Panthers.

[+] EnlargeDeAngelo Williams
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesDeAngelo Williams' contract is among those contributing to the Panthers' salary-cap issues.
I don’t know if former general manager Marty Hurney deserves all the blame or if he was acting on orders from above, but the contracts given to guys like DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Steve Smith, Jon Beason, James Anderson and Charles Godfrey in recent years have left the Panthers in a real salary-cap mess.

Whoever ends up as the new general manager is going to have his hands tied in a lot of ways, because most of those contracts include so much guaranteed in base salaries and so much pro-rated money that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get out from under some of the team’s biggest contracts by releasing players.

The Panthers would lose cap space if they released Smith, Stewart or Godfrey. They’d basically break even on Anderson.

Beason and Williams could be candidates for release, but only if the Panthers designated them as June 1 cuts and spread their cap hit over two years, instead of one.

The Panthers currently have $136 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that is expected to be slightly more than $120 million. Let’s look at some guys who could be on the cap bubble.

Beason: The logical scenario for him is a contract restructure to knock his cap figure down. Beason currently has a $9.5 million cap figure and $3.75 million of his $5.25 base salary for this year is guaranteed. Beason also has $12 million in outstanding pro-rated money.

Williams: He has an $8.2 cap figure. He also has $9.6 million in outstanding pro-rated money. They only way the Panthers would benefit from releasing him would be to designate him as a June 1 cut and take a $4.8 million hit for him this year and the same in 2014.

Chris Gamble: It’s sad to say, but the Panthers almost have to cut their best cornerback, because he can provide more cap relief than anyone on the roster. Gamble has a $10.9 million cap figure. The Panthers could free up $7.9 million by releasing him.

Jordan Gross: The Panthers could clear up $6.7 million by releasing him, but I don’t think that’s practical. Do you really want to leave Cam Newton without a left tackle to protect his blind side. Good left tackles usually don’t hit the free-agent market, and the Panthers have too many other needs to use their first draft pick on a left tackle. They can restructure Gross and knock his $11.7 million cap figure down a good bit.

Ron Edwards: The aging and often-injured defensive tackle almost certainly will be gone. The Panthers instantly would clear $2.5 million by releasing him.

Jimmy Clausen: A lot of people assume the third-string quarterback will be gone. But there is no cap space to be gained by releasing Clausen, because his base salary ($575,000) is guaranteed and he still has $322,500 in pro-rated money. Besides, backup Derek Anderson is scheduled to become a free agent. The Panthers aren’t going to have the room to re-sign him. They might as well keep Clausen and bump him up to No. 2 on the depth chart.

Haruki Nakamura: The Panthers signed him as a free agent in 2012, and Nakamaura didn’t really work out. The Panthers could free up $1.8 million by releasing him.

The bottom line here is the Panthers are in a brutal spot. They're not going to be able to do much of anything to improve themselves in free agency. They're going to be subtracting from their roster, and the only viable way to add to it will be through the draft.

Around the NFC South

December, 12, 2012
Time for a run through the Wednesday morning headlines from around the NFC South:


Mark Bradley makes an excellent point when he writes that the fact the Falcons already have clinched the NFC South title essentially puts them into another preseason. But the Falcons can’t afford to look at it that way. They still need to wrap up the No. 1 seed throughout the NFC playoffs, and they need to build some momentum as they head into the playoffs.


The team placed safety Haruki Nakamura on injured reserve. That gives the Panthers 16 players who are out for the season. That’s two short of last season's franchise record.


Jeffri Chadiha writes that coach Sean Payton is the person most responsible for the whole bounty scandal. I’d put former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams up there, too. But Chadiha’s point is that Payton’s arrogance set a tone in which an unhealthy culture grew out of control, and I think that’s a pretty accurate assessment of this sordid affair.

Jonathan Vilma has until Wednesday afternoon to decide if he wants to continue with his defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Vilma’s attorney said Tuesday that his client plans to continue with the suit, but we’ll see what happens in the next few hours.


Just in time for Christmas, the Bucs announced they’re cutting prices on about 35 percent of their seats for next season. The team also said prices won’t increase for the other seats. Smart move by a team that’s only had the local television blackout lifted for two home games this season.

Cornerback Brandon McDonald, who was with the team earlier in the season, was re-signed. McDonald should provide some depth after Myron Lewis was placed on injured reserve.

Around the NFC South

December, 7, 2012
Time for a look at the top Friday morning headlines from around the division:


Coach Mike Smith said Jacquizz Rodgers has shown he has what it takes to be a feature back. This could be the week that actually happens. The Falcons gradually have increased Rodgers’ playing time. Starter Michael Turner has been limited in practice because of an elbow injury.

Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy caused a stir this week when he said the Panthers are better than Atlanta. The Falcons seem to be taking the comments in stride. Veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez said, "What else is he going to say at this point? They haven’t won many games."


As Carolina gets ready to host Atlanta, it’s worth looking back at Cam Newton’s crucial fumble in the Week 4 meeting between the Panthers and Falcons. If Newton didn’t fumble, Carolina would have been 2-2 and had some momentum. It’s at least worth wondering if the season would have gone differently for the Panthers if they had come away with a big win in the Georgia Dome. If Newton hadn't fumbled, maybe the Panthers wouldn't be 3-9. Maybe Marty Hurney still would be the general manager and maybe coach Ron Rivera's job would be secure.

Speaking of plays that could have changed the outcome of the first meeting between Atlanta and Carolina, safety Haruki Nakamura reflects on not getting to Roddy White in time to break up a pass that set up the game-winning field goal.


Bradley Handwerger points out that the current Saints are similar to the 2007 and ’08 editions. They’re not playing well in the fourth quarter, and that’s why they’re 5-7. If you want evidence, look no further than quarterback Drew Brees. His fourth-quarter passer rating this year is 53.8. Last season it was 93.7.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin went out of his way to explain defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul’s comment that said it’s easier to prepare for Brees than Washington’s Robert Griffin III. I think it’s pretty obvious that Pierre-Paul wasn’t slighting Brees. He simply was pointing out that Griffin’s running ability is a unique challenge for a defense. But coaches and players are going to use anything close to a perceived slight as motivation.


The Bucs will gather their Super Bowl team for a 10-year celebration on Sunday. But defensive back Ronde Barber won’t be able to take part in all the festivities because he’s the only member of that team still playing. Barber, 37, told Martin Fennelly he’ll stop playing as soon as he declines. There hasn’t been any decline yet, and I think the Bucs gladly would welcome Barber back for one more season.

At 6-6, the Bucs need a strong finish to reach the playoffs. But Gary Shelton points out Tampa Bay’s December history often has been less than stellar. This team might be different though. If the Bucs can re-establish running back Doug Martin and get quarterback Josh Freeman back on the path he was on before losing the past two games, a playoff berth is possible if the Bucs add three or four more wins. Even missing the playoffs with a 9-7 or 8-8 record would be a successful season for a team that was 4-12 last season.

Around the NFC South

October, 4, 2012
Let's take a look at the Thursday morning headlines from around the NFC South:


Matt Ryan continues to be talked about as an MVP candidate, but the quarterback doesn’t want to hear it. That’s exactly what I’d expect from Ryan, who doesn’t like to be praised publicly. If he continues as an MVP candidate, I’m sure his company line will be that he’ll just do his job and everything else will take care of itself.

Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall and Atlanta coach Mike Smith said they’ve made up after an incident in a 2009 game where things got a little physical. But Hall’s always been an emotional player, so anything’s possible Sunday when he faces the team that first drafted him.


Free safety Haruki Nakamura shaved his head as part of symbolic fresh start. Nakamura knows things have to change if he’s going to hold onto his starting job. Nakamura had a disastrous outing Sunday in Atlanta, but the Panthers have said he will remain as the starter.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has been overwhelmed with ticket requests for Sunday’s game at Carolina. That’s understandable because Wilson has deep ties to the area. He spent three years at NC State and played minor-league baseball in North Carolina. Wilson said he’s told some friends they may have to find their own tickets because he’s got to concentrate on getting ready for the game.


Running back Darren Sproles had a rare and crucial drop in the loss to Green Bay. So he and Drew Brees stayed after practice Wednesday and ran the same play a bunch of times. Brees made it a point to let it be known Sproles caught the pass every time.

Although Brees has taken some shots in the past at the San Diego Chargers for giving up on him, he said he has a good relationship with the quarterback that replaced him. Brees said he and Philip Rivers, his former backup, worked well together when they were teammates and remain friends.


The Bucs have used the bye week to try to convince quarterback Josh Freeman to put his trust in their offensive system, the play calls and his training. The early bye might have come at a good time for Freeman. He’s had some bright moments, but needs to be much more consistent.

Another point of emphasis during the bye week has been to find ways for rookie Doug Martin to get some more explosive runs. Martin’s longest run so far has been 17 yards. But the blame for that shouldn’t all fall on Martin. Tampa Bay’s offensive line still is searching for continuity after losing Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph to injury late in the preseason.

NFC South afternoon update

October, 3, 2012
Let's take a look at the day's top headlines from around the NFC South:


Quarterback Matt Ryan says in this podcast that he’s more confident this season. Ryan said that’s due to the fact he’s more experienced. I also think it might have something to do with the fact that coordinator Dirk Koetter is running an offense that maximizes Ryan’s skills.

Former Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall, now with Washington, says Ryan is playing at an MVP level.


Fans in the Carolinas won’t be happy to hear this, but coach Ron Rivera says he’s sticking with Haruki Nakamura as the starting free safety, even after a disastrous outing Sunday in Atlanta. But I’ve got a hunch we could see Sherrod Martin if Russell Wilson lights up Nakamura a couple of times.

In this radio interview, Carolina receiver Brandon LaFell shares his opinion that the Panthers should have gone for it on fourth-and-1 in Atlanta on Sunday. As we know, the Panthers punted the ball away and the rest is history.


In this radio interview, interim coach Aaron Kromer says the Saints are ready to bust out at any time. If that’s going to happen, it better happen immediately because the Saints have almost no margin for error if they’re going to dig themselves out of an 0-4 hole.

The injury report isn’t getting much lighter for the Saints. Receiver Lance Moore (hamstring) and safety Roman Harper (hip) were held out of Wednesday’s practice. Linebacker David Hawthorne, who missed Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury, also remained out of practice.


A bankruptcy court has ordered an auction of an Orlando-area house owned by former Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp. The 15,000-square-foot house was built in 2005 for about $7 million.

Coach Greg Schiano hinted the Bucs may use the bye week to take a look at Jeremy Trueblood at right guard. Trueblood lost his starting job at right tackle to Demar Dotson. Ted Larsen has been starting at right guard since Davin Joseph went down with a season-ending injury in the preseason. It doesn’t hurt to give Trueblood a look at guard because it’s not like Larsen has been playing at a Pro Bowl level.

Around the NFC South

October, 2, 2012
Time for a run through the Tuesday morning headlines from around the division:


Although his team is off to a 4-0 start and has thorough command in the NFC South, Atlanta coach Mike Smith said he’s not getting carried away and isn’t focused on division foes just yet. He said he’ll worry more about division opponents when the Falcons play them. But, the reality is, if things keep going like they are, the Falcons might not have to worry about much in the NFC South.

Zeke Trezevant has a breakdown of the seven sacks the Falcons allowed Sunday. Most of them were given up by right tackle Tyson Clabo, who struggled to block Charles Johnson. But the encouraging thing is most of the rest of the sacks weren’t resulted to a breakdown of the offensive line. Instead, there were several coverage sacks, where Matt Ryan held the ball too long, instead of throwing it away.


Jonathan Jones has a good breakdown of what happened in the final seconds of the Falcons-Panthers game, when Smith tried to call a timeout he didn’t have. An official signaled for the timeout and then informed Smith he didn’t have one. It didn’t matter. The Falcons only had 10 men on defense and the pause allowed them to get 11 on the field. Officials did not hit Smith with a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

It sure sounds like the Panthers are ready to turn back to Sherrod Martin as their starting free safety after Haruki Nakamura didn’t work out. Martin was the starter last year and had some issues with tackling, but it seems like the Panthers have come to realize Martin is better than Nakamura in coverage.


Joe Unitas, the son of Johnny Unitas, wrote a letter to quarterback Drew Brees, wishing him luck as he tries to break his father’s record of touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games. The younger Unitas admired Brees’ skills on the field, but saluted him even more for what he’s done off it.

There have been rumblings that the NFL soon could re-issue punishments in the Saints’ bounty program. But, as of the end of the day Monday, no decision had been made. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma faced a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith faced a four-game suspension. Although both players have fought the penalties, the speculation is that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will issue the same punishments he did the first time.


After watching quarterback Josh Freeman catch fire in the second half Sunday, coach Greg Schiano said he should have let his quarterback take more shots downfield in the first half. Schiano has talked about taking shots since the day he was hired. He has a quarterback with a strong arm and needs to let him take those shots on a consistent basis.

Jeremey Trueblood lost his starting job at right tackle to Demar Dotson. Trueblood wasn’t even active on Sunday because he can’t play other positions on the offensive line. The Bucs forced Trueblood to take a pay cut in the offseason. Unless there are dramatic changes, it’s safe to say Trueblood won’t be back with the Bucs next season.

The Carolina Panthers could be looking at shaking up their struggling defense.

Coach Ron Rivera said Monday that former starter Sherrod Martin will get some practice time with the first team this week and hinted that he could end up back in the starting lineup.

The Panthers have been starting Haruki Nakamura at free safety. They went out and signed him as a free agent in the offseason. The thinking was that Nakamura had been Ed Reed’s backup and was ready to step into a starting role.

But Nakamura hasn’t been at all effective as a starter with the Panthers this season. On Sunday, he particularly struggled in deep coverage. I’ve also seen him take multiple bad angles on tackles downfield.

Martin has some coverage skills, but the Panthers looked to replace him because he missed too many open-field tackles. I’d get the guy with the cover skills back in there. And maybe the time out of the starting lineup has inspired Martin to improve his tackling skills.

Nakamura needs to go back to what he does best. That’s being a backup and a special-teams player.

How the Panthers lost to the Giants

September, 21, 2012
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – With some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at how the Carolina Panthers lost, 36-7, to the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night.

  • Carolina quarterback Cam Newton didn’t handle the Giants’ blitz very well. When facing five or more pass-rushers, Newton was 5 of 10 for 83 yards with two interceptions. Newton entered the game second in the league with a 72.7 completion percentage against the blitz. New York’s Eli Manning, meanwhile, was much more efficient against the blitz. He completed 7 of 8 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown when facing five or more pass-rushers.
  • Carolina’s defense, which had a horrible game, was particularly bad in the secondary. Rookie cornerback Josh Norman and safety Haruki Nakamura struggled all night -- despite the Giants being without starting receiver Hakeem Nicks. Ramses Barden stepped in and had the game of his life, catching nine passes to match his reception total for the entire 2011 season. Barden caught all seven of his targets between the numbers for 114 yards.
  • Manning ate up Carolina’s secondary downfield. On passes that traveled 10 yards or more, Manning was 7 of 9 for 135 yards and a touchdown. He’s averaging 15.4 yards per attempt on throws of that distance, which ranks him second in the NFL behind Robert Griffin III.
  • Barden wasn’t the only New York replacement to burn Carolina’s defense. Andre Brown stepped in for the injured Ahmad Bradshaw and rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Carolina’s tackling was particularly bad against Brown and the running game. Brown finished with 71 yards after initial contact; 63 of those yards came in the first half as the Giants jumped out to a 20-0 lead.

Defense still holding Panthers back

September, 21, 2012
Andre BrownAP Photo/Bob LeveroneAndre Brown and the Giants exposed Haruki Nakamura (43), Josh Norman -- and Carolina's whole D.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers got their best defensive player back from injury, patched the middle of their defensive line, picked up the best linebacker in the draft and found an alleged “steal’’ at cornerback in the fifth round.

Put all that together with talent like defensive end Charles Johnson' and cornerback Chris Gamble', and it was supposed to add up to a team that’s a playoff contender.

It might be time to rethink that.

After watching Carolina’s defense in a 36-7 loss to the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night, I think the Panthers look a lot more like the 6-10 team they were a year ago.

Their defense looked worse than it did last season. It was horrible.

“We missed tackles," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “We were soft in coverage. You can’t do that against a good football team."

No doubt the defending Super Bowl champions are a good team. But the fact is the Panthers can’t play this kind of defense and have any chance of going to the postseason.

The Giants weren’t even a fully loaded team. Starting receiver Hakeem Nicks, starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw and starting tackle David Diehl missed the game due to injuries.

Like it mattered.

Andre Brown stepped in for Bradshaw and ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Ramses Barden stepped into Nicks’ spot and produced nine catches for 138 yards. Raise your hand if you had heard of Brown or Barden before Thursday night.

Yeah, it helped that they were playing with quarterback Eli Manning. But it was Carolina’s defense that turned Brown and Barden into superstars.

The Giants scored on their first four drives and had a 20-0 lead by halftime and the game was pretty much over. Heck, it might have been over by the time the Giants built a 10-0 lead with 3:46 left in the first quarter.

“You get smacked in the face, you have to turn around and throw a punch," Rivera said. “Sometimes, we don’t know how."

That’s the really disappointing part -- that the Panthers don’t know how to throw a punch. The whole offseason was supposed to be about the defense getting better.

Middle linebacker Jon Beason, the leader of the defense, was coming back from missing most of last season with an injury. Same for defensive tackle Ron Edwards. The Panthers went out and drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round and they’re starting fifth-round pick Josh Norman at cornerback. They also brought in free-agent safety Haruki Nakamura and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards.

That was supposed to fix everything. Instead, it looks like the Panthers fixed nothing.

“One thing we’re trying to do is get out of this rut," Rivera said. “We’re trying to get away from how things used to be and trying to create a vibe. We’d love to have that type of vibe a team like the Giants have."

The only vibe coming out of this game was a bad one.

“If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame at the product that was out there," quarterback Cam Newton said.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images"If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame at the product that was out there," Cam Newton said.
Newton (16-of-30 for 242 yards and three interceptions) and the offense were far from perfect, but they weren’t the root of all evil. The offense never had a chance because the defense was so bad from the very start.

“We never stopped the bleeding on defense," Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “They came out and did everything they wanted. Nobody really made a play tonight."

Maybe the Panthers can turn it around. Maybe the defense can bounce back and Carolina can contend for a playoff berth for the first time since 2008.

But it’s not looking really promising right now. It’s looking as though the Panthers should have done a lot more to patch up their defense in the offseason. Maybe Ron Edwards really is just a guy. Maybe there was a reason why Buffalo released Dwan Edwards at the start of the preseason.

Maybe the Panthers, who like to preach about building through the draft, should have drafted a good interior defensive lineman sometime in the past few years. Heck, the last good defensive tackle they drafted was Kris Jenkins in 2001. George Seifert was calling the shots then, so you have to assume the Panthers fell into that one.

Kuechly overran several plays against the Giants, just as he did in the first two games. Norman got lit up by New York’s receivers.

“I thought Josh Norman was a little soft, and that’s uncharacteristic of him," Rivera said.

Makes you wonder if starting a fifth-round pick at cornerback right off the bat really is a good idea. Then there’s Nakamura. The Panthers went out and signed him simply because he was Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore.

There was a reason why Nakamura was a backup in Baltimore. Go look at the film from Thursday night. Watch him standing still 30 yards off the line of scrimmage and not giving the cornerbacks any help. Watch the angles he took on a couple of tackle attempts that didn’t even come close to being successful. I'm having a hard time believing that Sherrod Martin, who was benched in favor of Nakamura, is any worse.

“What this was was a lesson that you get from your big brother," Rivera said. “They came in and slapped you around and dragged you through the gravel a little bit."

Yep, even after all that offseason work, Carolina’s defense is still the little brother. If that defense doesn’t somehow grow up soon, it’s going to be another long season in Carolina.