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Roman Harper unsurprised by Panthers' struggles after Super Bowl trip

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In true Roman Harper form, when asked for a prediction on Sunday’s game between his New Orleans Saints and his former team, the Carolina Panthers, he responded with a plug for his alma mater.

"Alabama’s going to win against Tennessee by more than eight points," the 33-year-old safety said of Saturday’s big college football matchup. "How about that?"

Harper was a big part of the chemistry that helped the 2014 Panthers rebound from a 3-8-1 start to make the playoffs and the 2015 team that started 14-0 and ultimately reached Super Bowl 50.

He kept things loose in the locker room, from his storytelling to jokes to friendly wagers on his beloved Alabama.

But the Panthers moved on without Harper following the 24-10 Super Bowl loss to Denver so they could give Tre Boston a shot.

They also moved on from Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman, letting him become a free agent after rescinding his franchise tag. Veteran cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman retired after the Panthers didn’t make him an offer.

So Harper’s not totally surprised the team is struggling.

He understands teams coming off a trip to the Super Bowl, win or lose, often struggle. He was a part of the 2009 Saints who won their first 13 games and ultimately beat Indianapolis in the Super Bowl.

They started off 4-3 the next season before rebounding to go 11-5.

"First of all, the schedule’s harder," Harper said. "No. 2, in your minds, you’re like, 'We're good. We'll figure it out. We got it. I got it.' Every week, 'I got it.' That's the hardest part.

"I'm sure Carolina is going to be fine. Talent is not an issue there. They just have to find their stride. I just hope it’s not this week, that’s all I’m saying.

The Saints (1-3), like the Panthers, have their backs against the wall as they prepare for the 1 p.m. game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

New Orleans' slow start isn’t a huge surprise considering the team is coming off consecutive 7-9 seasons. But Carolina's struggles are a surprise with most of last year’s 17-2 team returning -- aside from the secondary.

"Any time after the Super Bowl, your team is going to change," Harper said. "I know Washington is happy about getting Josh. Those are some of the things that happen. It’s just unfortunate that it’s coming to this."

This, as Harper referred, is the turmoil surrounding the Carolina secondary. Rookie starter James Bradberry has missed one game with a toe injury and appears set to miss a second. Former starting corner Bene' Benwikere was released last Friday after being a part of a unit that gave up 300 yards receiving to Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones.

Boston has been replaced by veteran Michael Griffin, who was signed two weeks ago.

The secondary in general has taken much of the blame for the slow start. They’ve given up nine touchdown passes in five games after giving up only 21 all of last season. They are allowing 246 yards passing a game.

They are on pace for 16 interceptions after having a league-best 24 in 2015.

“Everybody has all these eyes on Carolina’s secondary,’’ Harper said. “I think it’s a complete defense thing. That’s what they pride themselves on, is being a complete defense thing and not just, 'Hey it’s all about this one player.'"

Harper is right in that the defensive front has produced only 11 sacks, a pace for 35.2 over 16 games. That would be nine less than a year ago.

Pressure up front played a big role in the secondary’s success a year ago.

“When I was there, it was all about complementary football," Harper said.

But Harper isn’t bitter or mad that the Panthers didn’t keep him around. He understands the business side of things.

He’s happy to be back in New Orleans, where he spent his first eight NFL seasons before the organization moved on without him.

His biggest regret at Carolina was not winning the Super Bowl when it was there for the taking.

“My regret is that I feel like we played our worst game we played all year long in the biggest game and the biggest opportunity on the biggest stage,’’ he said. “But I take everything in life as a learning experience. I learned a lot last year. It made me more of a complete, not only person but, player as well.’’

Two years with the Panthers also taught Harper not to underestimate them when they are down. He cited the 2014 team that won its final four games to make the playoffs, beginning with a 41-10 victory at New Orleans.

He credits that to coach Ron Rivera, along with defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and secondary coach Steve Wilks.

“Because of his faith in his team, the faith in his coaching staff and the belief that we can do this,’’ Harper said.

He just hopes it’s not this week.