The Carolina Panthers finally will get a look at their restructured secondary that was a big question mark entering the preseason in Thursday night's preseason finale at Pittsburgh.
Strong safety Roman Harper returned to practice this week for the first time since suffering turf toe after stepping on the foot of tight end Greg Olsen during an Aug. 1 practice in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
"I definitely think I can help with a sense of attitude, with a sense of leadership," Harper said. "At times we can be better at open-field tackling, doing some different concepts and just kind of understanding our fit."
Coach Ron Rivera has been emphatic that Harper's absence in practice and the first three preseason games wasn't an issue even though the defense has given up some big pass plays. He's reminded that Quintin Mikell started last season's opener at strong safety after signing a week earlier.
He also could have reminded that free safety Mike Mitchell, who went to Pittsburgh in free agency, didn't become a starter until after the secondary was decimated by injuries in Week 2.
But Rivera is glad Harper is back.
"Roman does have a veteran quality to himself," he said. "We're excited to have him around. What is missing is that veteran leadership presence."
Harper won't discuss whether the toe is completely healed, reminding he doesn't discuss injuries. But he admitted being a spectator for more than three weeks with a new team hasn't been easy.
"You come in with a sense of wanting to fit in and do the different things and show your work," Harper said. "When you get injured, that kind of sets you back. Training camp is a time where guys work on things and physically come together as a team.
"For me being gone, I was here but not really out there playing with the guys and going through the wars. It was kind of difficult."
With Harper, Carolina's secondary is set. Thomas DeCoud, a free agent from Atlanta, will start at free safety. Antoine Cason, a free agent from Arizona, will start at one cornerback and returning starter Melvin White will be on the other side.
Harper's return means either Anderson Russell or Robert Lester likely will become expendable when the team shrinks its roster to 53 players. Russell has started the past two preseason games over Lester, who missed the past two practices with an ankle injury.
The big question now is will the new secondary be as solid as the one last season that helped Carolina rank second in the NFL in total defense?
"Communication has been fine," Harper said. "Guys are getting lined up. We've got to get to the huddle calls a little bit faster. But overall, if you look at it on tape, the defense has not played bad."
If you were unfortunate enough to have heard him in the booth when he was on ESPN, you probably already know what kind of a Norman Einstein like brain Theismann has, but if not, this should help you understand.
“Let’s stop beating around the bush,” Theismann, a color analyst working fir the team, said during Washington’s third preseason game, via Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post. “Kirk Cousins has played much better at the quarterback position than Robert Griffin III has. Now, Robert is learning to work out of a pocket. He doesn’t look as smooth or as comfortable throwing the football. I mean, your eyes will tell you everything you need to know.
“It’s going to be a decision that Jay Gruden is going to have to make. Right now, Robert Griffin III is his quarterback. Now, if there was a quarterback competition, it wouldn’t be a competition. Kirk Cousins would be the man I believe he would have to go to, because of the efficiency with which he has run [the offense]. Now Kirk, like I said, is basically a drop-back quarterback. I see Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, I see Kirk Cousins that way.”
Given a chance to revisit the topic again during Tuesday’s edition of The Dan Patrick Show, Theismann did a complete and total about-face. And then acted like he didn’t.
“Who gives this team a better chance of winning for the entire season?” Dan Patrick asked.
“I would say Robert does,” Theismann said.
“The element that we haven’t seen in preseason and the element that Robert brings is like Colin Kaepernick, is like Cam Newton. They have incredible ability — and Russell Wilson — to make plays with their legs that nobody else has. If you look at the 20 throws that Robert has made, most of it has been out of the pocket, which is a learning process for him. I’m sure that — and Jay has said this — he’s never had an athlete like Robert. So what’s gonna have to happen — and will happen, I’m sure — is this offense will morph into something that complements his skill set, as far as being able to break the pocket and get outside. In the preseason, because of the way it’s been constructed, there’s no question. Kirk has played and looked better. Robert continues to work hard . . . And I said it in the telecast, there’s no competition here. Robert Griffin III is the starting quarterback.”