Carolina Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera and Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott both agree on one thing regarding Sunday’s 30-28 loss at Atlanta; Haruki Nakamura will remain the starter at Free Safety – at least for now.
Per Max Henson at Panthers.com:
“We are evaluating all positions, we really are,” head coach Rivera said. “(Haruki) had a tough day obviously, on a couple plays. But he also made a couple plays – big interception down in the red zone, big knock away down in the red zone, and a couple nice tackles coming up.
“It’s a matter of finishing the evaluation process. I’m not going to make a knee-jerk response to something.”
Rivera is referring to a couple of plays where Nakamura looked completely lost in covreage. One was on a TD pass where Nakamura spun around in a 360-degree “twirl” of sorts, leaving him only able to take a late swipe at the ball long after it was in the receiver’s hands and put away for the score.
The other obvious poor play was on a similar-looking effort when Roddy White caught his 59-yard bomb with the Falcons pinned at their own 1-yard line late in the game…when all the Panthers had to do was keep the Falcons out of field goal range which would have been a drive of about 65 yards considering their starting position.
Both plays reminded me of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series…when Dolphins’ WR Roberto Wallace was dubbed “Ankle Weights” Wallace by a coach…and the name stuck because that’s what he looked like running his routes.
Nakamura, at least on those two plays in particular, looked like he had zero vertical leap ability. None. It was as if he tried to elevate, throwing his arms up as if to jump and make a play on the ball or at least get TO it, but failed miserably. It was as if Haruki was wearing…well, ankle weights.
He really looks like a fullback playing safety.
In Nakamura’s defense, he did make some plays that the Rivera quote referred to, so it wasn’t all bad. However, with the athletic receivers in the NFL all having 36-inch-plus vertical leaps, Nakamura’s lack of athleticism to “play taller” was readily apparent. His hips look very stiff and struggles in man coverage. He CAN leap if he has time to set and launch, but at the free safety position, you rarely get that luxury. My own opinion is that he seems to lack the overall agility that the position calls for, not to mention inconsistent play. As Rivera said, Nakamura did make some fine plays in the game, but a safety is called a safety for a reason. They’re often the last line of defense and if they miss, it can mean 6 points for the offense.
Rivera did give himself and his staff some wiggle room when he stated that Sherrod Martin would see a lot of time in practice in order to evaluate all his options.
“If we are going to evaluate, we have to evaluate the different combinations and what the possibilities can be,” Rivera said. “When you look at what happened in training camp, I didn’t think Sherrod did a bad job. We’ll continue to evaluate and we’ve got until Sunday to make a decision.”
Sometimes coaches tell on themselves and it sounds like Rivera wanted to sound confident with the current starter but the more he spoke, the more details revealed that make it sound like Nakamura’s job may now be more “free” than “safe.”