Jason Baker made a touchdown-saving tackle after a 24-yard return by Eric Weems. (Photo by John Clark)
CHARLOTTE – There was one man between Atlanta Falcons punt returner Eric Weems and the goal line and it happened to be punter Jason Baker.
Those might not always be good odds for the Panthers, but on this day Baker came up with arguably the play of the game when he hit Weems high and shoved him out of bounds near midfield preventing a key touchdown.
If Baker had whiffed on the tackle or taken the wrong angle, Weems easily would have sailed to the end zone and given the Falcons a 26-21 lead late in the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Jon Beason joked that Baker’s style “wasn’t too textbook,” but that didn’t stop him from showering the veteran punter with praise after the game.
“I wanted to see him get excited and celebrate a little but he kind of just made the play and went back to being Baker,” Beason said of the even keel Baker. "It was a great play because he saved a touchdown and if he didn’t make that tackle I think it’s a totally different game.”
Instead, Richard Marshall intercepted Matt Ryan down the field on the next play from scrimmage.
“That was just a situation where I have to guess if he’s going to one side or the other,” Baker said. “It was nothing that every guy in this locker room shouldn’t expect from every other guy in this locker room.
“It wasn’t a situation where letting him go by was much of an option. I was just real happy that after kind of a longer season and the maybe ‘negative response’ to how our special teams have played.”
Coach John Fox joked after the game he was more concerned about Baker making the tackle rather than how he went about doing it. "It’s a goal-oriented business," Fox said with a grin. Teammate Steve Smith, who was once a Pro Bowl punt returner, said of Weems. "If that was me, I would have run Baker over."
GROSS’ STATUS: With Jordan Gross out with a broken right ankle, the Panthers will turn to Travelle Wharton to play left tackle and Mackenzy Bernadeau to play left guard on Thursday night against the Miami Dolphins.
Losing a second Pro Bowl caliber player in as many weeks (Thomas Davis was lost for the season last week with a torn ACL) is a huge blow as the Panthers move forward.
“He will be thoroughly missed but you need guys in the NFL that step up when other guys go down," said running back DeAngelo Williams.
As for the injury, coach John Fox said he doesn’t know yet if Gross will be lost for the season, but that is a distinct possibility.
“It hurts, not only the football player, but the man,” said quarterback Jake Delhomme. “I think you saw the reaction of all of the guys on the team. Jordan is special. He’s a leader, a top ten pick. He was placed the first mini-camp at tackle and he hasn’t left. It’s ironic last year in Atlanta he gets carted off on a concussion and again today.”
The good thing for the Panthers is Wharton has started 33 games at left tackle. Although Bernadeau is the equivalent of a redshirt freshman, the Panthers like what they’ve seen from former Bentley College standout.
“The thing that’s comforting to me is that Travelle Wharton has played tackle at a high level for us,” Delhomme said. “He’ll slide right in. Mac Bernadeau is a young kid we like. Same thing happened last year with Frank Omiyale and Hangartner. They had to step in and they parlayed it into some good contracts for them. I think this is something Mac will enjoy and Coach Magazu will do a good job of getting him ready.”
PEPPERS HAS BROKEN HAND: Coach John Fox has stubbornly refused to admit it, but Beason let it slip to reporters after the game that Julius Peppers played Sunday with a broken right hand. Peppers suffered the injury last week against New Orleans, but Fox has classified it as a “messed up hand.”
“It’s tough,” Beason said. “Anytime you get a broken bone it’s hard. He was still getting pressure on the quarterback with basically one arm, it was unbelievable.
“The young guy Everette Brown stepped in and played well, Charles Johnson played well, and that’s what we need. Thomas (Davis) went down and James Anderson played some, Landon Johnson played some, and they both did a good job of making plays.”
Peppers didn’t record a tackle, but had two quarterback hurries late in the game.
RETURN GAME CHANGE: The Panthers deactivated Mike Goodson and put Tyrell Sutton back to return kickoffs.
Only problem is he never got a chance to do so. Micheal Koenen sent all five of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. Koenen also had a 70-yard punt at the end of the first half. He's probably the only guy in the league with as much leg strength as Rhys Lloyd.
MARTIN GETS ANOTHER: Rookie Sherrod Martin is making a strong case to maintain his starting free safety spot even after Charles Godfrey returns from a high ankle sprain. Martin recorded his third interception of the season when he picked off Matt Ryan leading to a Carolina touchdown.
“There were times where I had to be more patient and play my responsibility and not do too much,” Martin said. “Sometimes that requires me to come up late. As long as I know what my duties are, I perform them.”
Said Fox: “He’s a guy, who a month ago quite frankly we didn’t know him. We drafted him. We knew what he did in college and his capabilities. We knew his flexibility both being a corner type athlete with safety size. We didn’t have a chance to play him much. He got hurt and missed a lot of time. The first time we watched him play was a couple of weeks ago against Arizona. I thought he had a whale of a performance. He’s a guy who has been given an opportunity and seized it in a good way.”
SMITH SHAKES OFF INJURY: Shortly after Gross’ injury, Steve Smith went down near the end of the first half after taking a shot to the ribs on his second touchdown reception of the game. He returned to the game but didn't catch a pass after that.
“A second guy came in with his knee leading,” Smith said. “That is just defensive players, trying to get that extra hit in to see if they can jog the ball loose. That is the game we play. I’m alright.”
When how severe the injury is, Smith stole a line from comedian Chris Rock saying he’ll just need to “rub some Tussin on it.”
He hopes to be ready for Thursday night.
NO-HUDDLE BLUNDER: Carolina’s no-huddle offense wasn’t completely without mistakes.
On one play Delhomme took a snap from center and ran into Jonathan Stewart in the backfield. The ball came loose, but Delhomme recovered before any damage was done.
“I was usually in shotgun,” Delhomme said. “The play clock was running down and he was offset. I was trying to get him to come over the top. DeAngelo and I had done it last week in the New Orleans game. It was something we hadn’t worked on. The play clock was running down and I was just trying to hurry up and get it. I need to get out of his way.”
THEY SAID IT: Receiver Steve Smith on winning and being a contributor with two touchdown catches: “Winning the game is always good and you always want to be involved. With that competitive edge, you want to be involved in it. If you are just settling for being on the team, that is not the way God made me. I don’t settle for just being on the team and getting a jersey. If I’m out there, I want to contribute, blocking or running routes and all of those things. I want to be involved. I want to be on the field. I’m too ugly of a cheerleader to carry pom poms and a skirt. I’m not into cheerleading. I’m into playing football.”