A featured, albeit nitpicky, gripe with the Carolina Panthers this preseason was the advanced age of many of its key players, especially on defense.
In a 31-21 loss to New Orleans on Sunday, some of those players made mistakes that not only were uncharacteristic, they would have been more understandable if committed by rookies than from seasoned veterans.
Sure, there were several missed tackles from even the most disciplined on the team: Safety Kurt Coleman, for example, missed at least two on 20-plus yard plays by running back Alvin Kamara, including a whiff on a 25-yard touchdown. Safety Mike Adams, for all his experience, got swirled around like he was in a blender while chasing down a 72-yard run from running back Mark Ingram.
But three huge errors from experienced players in the second quarter were the most surprising, and ultimately costly, as Carolina (8-4) lost its momentum, the game and the lead in the NFC South.
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It started with a facemask penalty called on left tackle Matt Kalil on Carolina’s first drive of the second quarter. At that point, the game was tied and seemed manageable.
Quarterback Cam Newton bit off a nice four-yard run on third down and 2, but Kalil’s penalty pushed the Panthers back 15 yards. Faced with a long third down, Carolina had to punt the ball away (Kalil got called for a second facemask and a hold simultaneously late in the game).
“We had opportunities to complete plays downfield and we get holding calls, facemask calls,” said head coach Ron Rivera after the game. “We can’t do that, not against a good football team. That’s why you get beat.”
The very next Saints drive showcased Adams’ spinning whiff of Ingram, and was capped by a touchdown from the running back. Carolina went three-and-out on its next series.
Then, the ball slipped from punter Michael Palardy’s hands slipped on a punt following that series. The ball dribbled to the ground and Palardy snatched it up. He attempted to throw a pass, but it sailed incomplete. New Orleans got the ball back on Carolina’s 31.
“I just tried to kind of get it in my hand and get a good grip, and as I went to drop it and extend my arm out, it just kind of slipped,” he said. “Just one of those things that happened, and you just kind of move on from it. ... I kind of mishandled it a little bit. It slipped out of my fingertips. I tried to do the best that I could to kind of make a play out of what happened. You live with it and move on.”
New Orleans faced a third and 5 on its next drive, and handed off to Ingram. Peppers hit Ingram on the boundary of the field and was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for appearing to keep Ingram wrapped up physically despite being clearly out of bounds.
Peppers argued the call with the referee extensively.
“I saw the running back still trying to gain yards,” said Peppers, still visibly upset by the call after the game. “I wrapped him up on the boundary. Our momentum started going backwards, I started to fall, I let him go.
“I thought it was pretty ticky-tack. ... But regardless, at the end of the day, you can’t hurt your team like that. We just have to do better.”
The penalty gave the Saints a first down. Three plays later, the Saints scored on a 10-yard catch by Michael Thomas and went up 21-7.
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Peppers said the defensive mistakes specifically did not give the team a chance to win Sunday.
“I’m speaking for defense. We did not play well at all. We didn’t play fundamentally sound,” he said. “We hurt ourselves with some mistakes, self-inflicted penalties. Very uncharacteristic. So when you do those type of things, you can’t win games like that.”