CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Perhaps this is the week for Eli Manning to get back on track.
The Carolina Panthers have some major injury concerns in the secondary as they prepare to host Manning and the New York Giants on Sunday in a game crucial for both 0-2 teams.
Carolina lost starting free safety Charles Godfrey over the weekend to a torn Achilles tendon and five other defensive backs missed all or part of Wednesday's practice, including starting cornerback Josh Thomas (concussion).
Safety Quintin Mikell (knee) and cornerback DJ Moore (knee), Josh Norman (thigh) and Thomas sat out practice, while cornerback James Dockery (hand) was limited.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera hopes to get some of those injured players back this week, but says undrafted rookie Robert Lester — who was signed from the practice squad on Tuesday — will start at safety Sunday if Mikell can't play.
Rivera said the injuries are "concerning" considered Manning's talent and experience at picking apart defenses.
"We have some young guys who will have to take some reps and get ready to play," Rivera said. "But hopefully we can get some of these guys back on the field and get them geared up. But there is concern, yes. I'm not going to kid you about that."
The Panthers were left with only five healthy defensive backs on Wednesday, which isn't good news for a unit that was considered the team's weakest link coming into the season.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott knows his secondary will have its hands full with Manning, even though the two-time Super Bowl MVP has struggled with seven interceptions in two games.
McDermott said the Panthers will rely on their strength on defense — their front seven — to pressure Manning into mistakes.
"They have to be special for us," McDermott said. "That's what we've talked about — the great players have to play great every week."
McDermott said one of the things the secondary is working on this week is better communication after some breakdowns in Carolina's 24-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
The onslaught of injuries caused some problems between players not used to playing with each other — or in some cases playing out of position.
Things were so dire at one point Sunday the Panthers talked about moving linebacker Thomas Davis to free safety because they didn't have enough defensive backs to use in nickel packages.
All of this would seem to be good news for Manning, who has a good track record against the Panthers.
Last year Manning completed 27 of 35 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown as the Giants embarrassed the Panthers 36-7 in front of their home crowd and a national television audience.
"Eli is a tremendous competitor who feels worse about bad plays than anything I can heap on his shoulders," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "He knows. He's working hard to control the situation and stay within himself and realize that some of those plays you think you have to make, the percentages aren't with you."
Not surprisingly, Coughlin said the Giants have included cutups from last year's game as part of their preparation for the Panthers.
It's a good bet Manning will be targeting a thin Carolina secondary.
"We have to see who is going to be out there for Carolina," Manning said. "... Their front seven is very talented and their linebackers are good. We have to handle the guys up front to get the ball down the field."
Panthers safety Mike Mitchell said the key will be not allowing Manning to get into a groove.
Last year Manning led the Giants to scores on their first four possessions to take an early 20-0 lead and the Panthers pretty much rolled over and played dead after that point. Manning did that despite playing without starting wide receiver Hakeem Hicks, who sat out with an injury.
"We have to try to frustrate Eli early and not let him get any big plays early," Mitchell said. "He's a two-time Super Bowl champion and we'll have our hands full, but we are definitely going to be ready."
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