Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Shaq Thompson ran with a full head of steam and lowered his right shoulder for a big collision with Saints running back Alvin Kamara at the goal line.
Kamara bent backward after Thompson’s tackle attempt, but recovered to convert the fourth-and-goal on the Saints’ first offensive possession in their Week 13 matchup with Carolina in New Orleans.
Kamara’s 2-yard touchdown run gave the Saints (11-5) the early lead in a game in which they never trailed. They won 31-21 to sweep the regular-season series and earn the tiebreaker with Carolina, which is the reason New Orleans will host Sunday’s NFC wild-card game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
A month later, Thompson and the Panthers (11-5) are looking for a little payback.
Thompson says he’ll have a different approach if he gets another shot at Kamara, the third-round pick who, along with Chiefs back Kareem Hunt, is in the running for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
“Oh, he’s going to feel it,” Thompson said Wednesday. “I’m going to make sure I wrap up and that’s what we need to do as a defense, not just myself. It was a lack of tackling the second time we played them. We’re gonna bounce back.”
Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks counted a season-high 12 missed tackles in the Dec. 3 loss to New Orleans. It just so happened that Thompson’s was the most glaring and came at a critical moment early in the game.
The Saints had taken the opening kick and driven from their 30 to the Panthers’ 3, where three plays – a Drew Brees incompletion, a Mark Ingram run and a catch by tight end Michael Hoomanawanui – failed to gain a yard.
Saints coach Sean Payton, looking for early momentum, kept his offense on the field rather than take an early field goal. On fourth down, Brees quick-pitched to Kamara, who took off running around the right end for the pylon.
Thompson read the play well, took a good angle and did everything well – except bring Kamara down.
“That was all my fault. I just didn’t wrap up,” Thompson said. “It was a good hit. He kept his balance. I’ve just got to wrap up and finish that tackle. It was nobody’s fault but mine. I’m going to make sure it’s not going to happen again.”
Troy Aikman, serving as the color analyst on the Fox broadcast, credited Thompson for being in a “perfect position.”
“Shaq Thompson was there to put a big lick on Alvin Kamara, but he doesn’t wrap him up,” Aikman said. “This shows some of the toughness that Kamara has. He gets blown up and he just keeps going.”
Payton also thought the play was more a testament to Kamara’s abilities than anything Thompson did poorly.
“It was defended well. When you get as close to the goal line as you are there, oftentimes it’s leverage, it’s body lean, it’s a number of things,” Payton said. “(Kamara) made a real good play. He’s got good balance. Very easily, though, it could have been one of those that was stopped.”
Panthers defensive end Wes Horton, who unsuccessfully tried to grab Kamara’s ankle on the touchdown, says it will be good to unleash a motivated Thompson on the Saints on Sunday.
“Shaq’s the type of person who’s known for laying the wood. I’m sure if he could go back in time, he’d definitely want to take that play back,” Horton said. “But Shaq’s a smart player. He’s not going to be head-hunting. He’s going to use the fundamentals and the technique that he knows how to use.”
Kamara isn’t the only back the Panthers have to worry about.
He and Mark Ingram became the first running back tandem in NFL history to finish with 1,500 or more scrimmage yards apiece. Ingram broke off a 72-yard run in the second meeting against the Panthers, and Kamara added a 20-yard touchdown in the third quarter after stepping out of a tackle attempt by safety Kurt Coleman.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said watching video of the December game was a reminder of his team’s tackling woes.
Carolina defensive back Captain Munnerlyn said the 5-10, 215-pound Kamara is stronger than he looks.
“A lot of people look at his size and they think they can go in and just stomp him. And I know he’s got tremendous strength, he keeps his legs running, keeps his legs moving, and he’s very slippery,” Munnerlyn said. “They’ve got a two-headed monster back there that’s been working out for the last 10, 11 weeks for those guys very well.”
Horton says the key is for Thompson – and the rest of the Panthers’ tacklers – not to get too crazed looking for redemption.
“The play happens fast sometimes, and sometimes you don’t make the exact technique or the right decision in that split-second. I don’t think he’ll get too over-hyped about it,” Horton said of Thompson.
“I think he’ll just be more focused. It’ll be a reminder if he’s in that position again, to tackle Kamara the appropriate way. Otherwise, he’s gonna make you slip.”