Panthers, Saints enduring growing pains in pass coverage
METAIRIE, La. (AP) The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers each have banked on players with little experience to cover opponents' starting receivers. Neither team has managed more than one victory through a quarter or more of the season.
Whether there's a direct correlation is debatable, but both teams have seen their young defensive backs tested, and at times it has been costly enough that each club saw wisdom in adding veteran free agents at those spots after since the regular season began.
The Saints hosts Carolina on Sunday and New Orleans receiver Willie Snead took notice when Atlanta passed for 481 yards against the Panthers, with the Falcons' Julio Jones gaining 300 yards on his own.
Snead said the secondary seems to be where the Panthers are ''struggling right now.''
''They've got a lot of young guys, a lot of rookies that are playing,'' Snead said. ''We just have to take advantage of the rookies. We have to attack them.''
The Panthers released third-year cornerback Bene Benwikere after the loss to Atlanta. Meanwhile, rookie cornerback James Bradberry injured his toe, so Carolina went with journeyman veteran Robert McClain and rookie Daryl Worley as its primary cornerbacks, and Zack Sanchez, another rookie, in five-defensive-back (nickel) formations last Monday night.
Carolina also benched third-year safety Tre Boston, who took over as starter after the release of safety Roman Harper, who has returned to his original NFL team in New Orleans.
''They wanted to see what Tre could do. I understand that,'' Harper said when asked if he understood why Carolina let him go last offseason. ''Tre's a young safety they drafted out of North Carolina. I think he's got a lot of skills and it's time for him to start to grow. ... I'm kind of just in the way of the whole growth process, so you let me go and you've got to see what these young guys can do.''
While there have been growing pains for the Panthers, Carolina coach Ron Rivera expressed confidence this week in the direction of his young secondary, which last week allowed just 202 yards passing in a 17-14 loss to Tampa Bay.
''I know there are some things that we have to shore up,'' Rivera said, ''but having said that, I think those guys are developing very nicely and really are solid young players.''
Overall, the Panthers are still not particularly easy to pass against because of pressure applied by their exceptional, experienced defensive line and linebackers, Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
Saints right tackle Zach Strief added that Carolina's front is strong against the run, essentially forcing opponents to attack through the air.
Carolina has allowed 246.4 yards passing per game, which ranks 15th overall, in the middle of the league. But that's down from 11th, where they ranked at the end of the 2015 regular season, when they allowed just 234.5 yards per game and made 24 interceptions. The Panthers have five interceptions this season - on pace to finish with 16.
New Orleans' defensive numbers against the pass are considerably worse. The Saints are allowing 301.3 yards passing per game, which ranks 29th. Because of an early season injury to top cornerback Delvin Breaux, the Saints have been playing two undrafted rookies - Ken Crawley and De'Vante Harris - at cornerback. P.J. Williams, a second-year pro who spent his rookie season in injured reserve, started two games before a severe concussion took him out of action for the remainder of this season as well. New Orleans has brought in veteran cornerbacks Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb since the regular season began.
The Saints also are playing rookie Vonn Bell at free safety, but have been pleased enough with him to start him ahead of veteran Jairus Byrd in the Saints' previous game, a victory at San Diego.
''Part of what we are paid to do is develop these young players and play them if we feel like they're our best option,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said. ''We've seen young corners now that are getting a lot of playing time. That's not necessarily a bad thing. You hope each week they are improving.''
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AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.