Injury to Shaq Thompson, the soul of the defense, leaves Panthers’ locker room listless

Derrick Brown said it “hurt everybody.”

Brian Burns prays “it’s not season-ending.”

Kamu Grugier-Hill, who stepped up admirably to fill the role created after Shaq Thompson’s ankle injury, could pretty much only muster words of despondence like everyone else.

“For Shaq to go down like that,” the veteran Grugier-Hill said, struggling to find the words. “I mean, Shaq is the best linebacker I’ve played with on any team. What he means to this city, what he means to this team, it’s heartbreaking right now. So we’re just trying to be there for him.”

Thus was the tone of the defeated, emotional, listless locker room in the final hours of Monday night. The Panthers’ first prime time game of the season saw a rookie quarterback work through growing pains, an injured offensive line struggle against a good pass rush and a crowd of 72,000 fans shrink to less than half of that by the game’s final two-minute warning — a result of the Panthers being down two scores until a late touchdown brought the game to its final margin, 20-17.

But what turned everything from bad to sad, from discouraging to devastating, was what happened in the first quarter — when Thompson, the soul of the defense and in some ways the voice of the team, was carted off the field, unable to use his ankle to walk off the field under his own power. The entire bench cleared to wish him well before he was driven away and resolutely waved to the crowd.

Carolina head coach Frank Reich, after the game, called the ankle injury “significant” and said that Thompson will miss “extended” time.

“It sucks, man, it sucks,” said Donte Jackson, the cornerback who is for the moment tasked with matching up with the opponent’s top receiver after another devastating injury to this defense happened just last week, with Jaycee Horn getting placed on injured reserve because of a hurt hamstring. “Shaq is one of those guys you kind of never think anything can happen to him. That’s just how strong and determined to be great he is. You’re definitely going to miss picking everybody up. Because that’s a big part of what he does out there besides his amazing play.

“But he’s a guy who wouldn’t want us to hang our heads. He’s probably going to be in here (Tuesday), just excited, happy for us that we still have an opportunity to play.”

Burns, the team’s fan-favorite pass rusher, agreed with Jackson. He added that losing Horn and Thompson — whom he considers “brothers” — is tough on the defense. (Burns added that he tweaked his ankle in the first quarter, too, and wasn’t 100% in his two-tackle game.)

“Both of those guys are star players, they make plays,” Burns said. “Shaq really is the motor to the defense, in a way, because he controls everything. ... But like I said it’s a business. This is the game we play. And stuff happens, so we gotta keep going.”

Even rookie quarterback Bryce Young could feel it. He choked up in his postgame presser when asked about Thompson’s early exit.

“Shaq’s a leader for us,” Young said. “Obviously he does a lot on the field, but he does a lot more for us, just being a leader in the locker room. ... That really hurts, and we all hate to see it. ... We’re all praying for him.”

Thompson finished Monday’s first quarter with three tackles, a strong start to what was supposed to be a bounce-back effort for the Panthers’ defense after Week 1. But it wasn’t.

Where does the team go from here? That question was largely answered in the final three quarters. Inside linebacker Frankie Luvu had a banner day with two sacks for 15 yards and nine tackles. Grugier-Hill, Thompson’s aforementioned replacement, notched his first sack on the year and added six tackles.

It’s true to say the defense was the bright spot on a pretty dreary night. Even still, though, the unit gave up 20 points, allowed seven third-down conversions on 16 tries and couldn’t keep the Saints out of the end zone on their penultimate drive to keep it a one-score game late.

That would be tough to swallow in and of itself.

But without Thompson — a pile-on after a second uninspiring total performance in as many weeks — it was devastating.

“There’s not a doubt who the leader is of this team,” Brown said. “And you saw that on full display tonight. For him to go down, that hurt everybody.”

And the Panthers, at this point, don’t know when that pain will go away.