Panthers' defensive secondary accepts challenge of Seahawks, Russell Wilson

jperson@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 4, 2013 

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    Year of the rookie

    Carolina’s Cam Newton and Seattle’s Russell Wilson started all 16 of their team’s regular-season games as a rookie quarterback (Newton in 2011, Wilson in 2012) and won numerous postseason honors. A comparison of their rookie-year statistics (regular season only):

    Newton Wilson

    QB rating 84.5 100.0

    TD passes 21 26

    Interceptions 17 10

    TD runs 14 4

    Yds passing 4,051 3,118

    Wins 6 11


Seattle’s secondary features three Pro Bowlers, and a cornerback who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in July.

The Panthers’ secondary – as Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson noted Wednesday – includes two guys named Josh.

Seattle’s starting cornerbacks are big and physical. The Panthers’ starting corners are short and physical.

But the Panthers’ relatively little-known defensive backs are hoping to come up big Sunday in the season opener against Wilson’s Seahawks.

Carolina fifth-year cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said he has been reminding young corners Josh Thomas and Josh Norman that Sunday is their time to shine.

“They’re always talking about Seattle corners, (how) they’re physical. But I feel like we’ve got a physical group too,” Munnerlyn said. “We’ll see on Sunday who has the best game. I feel if we outplay their secondary, I feel like we’ll be pretty good and win this game.”

The Panthers’ secondary struggled in 2012, allowing quarterbacks to complete an NFL-high 66.85 percent of their passes and surrendering 223 passing yards a game, which ranked 13th in the league.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks – led by corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner – finished sixth in pass defense, giving up 203.1 passing yards a game.

“Last year we had a lot of opportunities to make plays on the ball and we didn’t. Now we’re going to make those plays,” Panthers free safety Charles Godfrey said. “When it’s us and a receiver, we have to make those. We have to come down with the ball.”

After finishing with 11 interceptions last season, the Panthers picked off 10 passes in four exhibition games. Norman had four of the interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown.

Norman said Wednesday he’s not starting against Seattle, but will be the first corner off the bench in the Panthers’ nickel package alongside starters Munnerlyn and Thomas.

“There’s no doubt that I’m a starter in my own mind. I’m going to be that until the day I leave this league,” said Norman, who started 12 games as a rookie last year.

While Norman had the sizzle of the big plays in the preseason, he said he needs to be more consistent.

“I’ve got to get better with the scheme,” he said. “I’ve just got to understand better, be in better position.”

Free agent acquisition Drayton Florence, who began training camp as a starting corner, was released last weekend in the final roster cuts.

Thomas, a third-year player, replaced Norman in the starting lineup the final four games last season. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Thomas does not shy away from contact – nor does he lack confidence.

“I feel like I match up with anybody across the league. I don’t see myself as any less of a corner in this league. They brought me here for a reason,” said Thomas, a fifth-round pick in 2011 whom the Panthers claimed off waivers from Dallas.

“Going into this game and the rest of the season, I expect to win,” Thomas added. “I expect to dominate whoever’s across from me.”

The Panthers allowed Wilson to complete 19-of-25 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown in Seattle’s 16-12 win in Charlotte last season. But they intercepted him twice, including a pick Munnerlyn returned 33 yards for the Panthers’ lone touchdown.

“He’s got a knack for the ball. He’s all over the place. He’s a really good football player,” Wilson said of Munnerlyn. “He can make a lot of plays, does a lot of great things for them. You always have to be aware of where he is.”

Wilson is familiar with half of the Panthers’ tandem he called “the Josh brothers.” Wilson and Norman trained together at IMG Academy in Florida before last year’s draft.

Wilson, the former N.C. State and Wisconsin standout who led Seattle to the playoffs as a rookie, also knew about Quintin Mikell, the Panthers’ new pick-up at safety, but wasn’t sure about his jersey number during a conference call with Charlotte media. Mikell, an 11-year veteran who signed with the Panthers on Monday, is competing with Mike Mitchell at strong safety.

Godfrey, the Panthers’ longest-tenured defensive back, is confident the secondary will be better than people think.

“A lot of people talk about, ‘Oh, well, the D-line is the heart of this defense,’ and this and that. They are. It starts up front. Those guys have to hunt up front,” Godfrey said. “But also we have to do our part on the back end. And I think we’re doing that. We’re having tight coverage and we’re breaking on the ball and making those plays.”

While Sherman made the SI cover and observers raved about the rest of the Seattle defensive backs, Thomas said the Panthers have gone about their business.

“The media’s going to give a lot of press to the Seattle defense and their secondary. But we’re interested in what we’re doing,” Thomas said. “That’s how we want it. We want to be the surprise this year. Everybody’s overlooking this secondary.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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