NFC South: Josh Norman

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson doesn't think he's simply one of the top three to five cornerbacks entered in the NFL draft.

"I think I'm the best cornerback," Johnson said on Monday during his pro day at Wake Forest.

If the Carolina Panthers use the 25th pick on a cornerback, Johnson could be their guy.

At 6-foot-1 and 185-pounds, Johnson could fill the role of shutdown corner opposite Josh Norman so that 2014 draft pick Bene' Benwikere could move back to nickelback.

While offensive tackle and a speed wide receiver to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin are Carolina's top needs, a potential shutdown corner isn't far behind.

Michigan State's Trae Waynes is considered to be the consensus top cornerback prospect, and he reinforced that recently at the NFL combine by posting a time of 4.31 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Washington's Marcus Peters isn't far behind in pure talent, but he has baggage after being released from the team this past season.

Johnson didn't show elite speed at the combine, running a 4.52 40. But he felt good enough about that time that he didn't run the 40 on Monday.

He feels good enough about his overall talent that he believes he can be a shutdown corner in the NFL just as he was at Wake Forest. So does Wake coach Dave Clawson, reminding that's what Johnson did against top programs such as Florida State in 2014.

In explaining why Johnson had only one interception this past season after posting three in each of the two previous seasons, Clawson said opponents often threw away from Johnson.

"He's a tall corner that can run," Clawson said. "And he has the loosest, quickest hips of anybody I've ever seen."

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who hold the 22nd pick, obviously like Johnson. Of the 23 teams that sent representatives to North Carolina, they led the way with four.

The Panthers met informally with Johnson at the combine and haven't set up an official visit to Charlotte, about 90 minutes from Winston-Salem. They only sent scout Robert Haines for Monday's workout, but they saw him run only a week ago.

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman insists he'll take the best player available. Much of what position the Panthers will consider depends on what happens in free agency, which begins next week.

Johnson has no doubt he'll make some team happy.

"To be out on an island [as cornerbacks are] you have to be confident," he said.
A closer look at the areas the Panthers could address in the draft. Today we'll look at the cornerbacks, who are scheduled to work out on Monday in Indianapolis.

Position of need: The defense took a huge step forward with third-year player Josh Norman at one cornerback and rookie Bené Benwikere at the other over the final four games. But as you saw in the NFC divisional playoff loss at Seattle when the receiver got behind Benwikere for a 63-yard touchdown, the former San Jose State star doesn't have elite speed. Ideally, the Panthers would like to move Benwikere back to the nickel spot where he exceled if they can find a shutdown corner to play every down.

Three players the Panthers could target in the draft:

Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State: At 6-1 and 182 pounds Waynes has the size as well as the speed to be an elite cover corner. He likely will be gone between 10 and 20, but definitely a player that would get serious consideration if he slips to Carolina at 25. A physical player that can defend well in both man and zone pass coverage. Excels at defending big receivers that are becoming prevalent in the league. Also defends the run well. Would be a steal.

Marcus Peters, CB, Washington: He also has the size (6-0, 193) and speed to match up with most wide receivers. He also has issues with discipline. Was dismissed from the team this past season after reported multiple run-ins with the coaching staff. Then again, Josh Norman lacked discipline in terms of his play when Carolina initially signed him and he turned into the team's best corner this past season. Talent-wise, Peters may be the best corner in the daft if that talent can be harnessed.

Jalen Collins, CB, LSU: Extremely raw with only 10 career starts after declaring for the draft following his junior season, but in terms of size (6-2, 198) and speed he is the complete package. A physical player that also has done well in run support. Many believe his best years are ahead of him with good coaching. Carolina secondary coach Steve Wilks would provide that.
SEATTLE -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 31-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks:
  • Newton
    Newton
    Quarterback Cam Newton, with only a towel wrapped around his waist, had as much trouble getting past reporters to the shower as he did getting past the Seattle defense. He also had trouble summing up his emotions on a game in which he had an interception returned for a touchdown and a fumble. "I don't know how to feel," he said.
  • Cornerback Josh Norman had his head down, looking at every item as he packed his bag for the final time this season. Asked for his thoughts on the game, he politely replied, "I'll get you back in Charlotte."
  • Fullback Mike Tolbert has been talking for weeks about the made-for-TV movie that would be made about all the crazy things that have happened this season after the Panthers won the Super Bowl. After falling short of that goal, he said, "It's tough because we know we can be so much better."
  • Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, when asked about Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson going 8-for-8 for three touchdowns on third down: "That's a good way to win games."
  • Left tackle Byron Bell said he played well enough this season to get a new contract and that he hopes he gets another chance.
  • Head coach Ron Rivera continued to defend his team's right to be in the playoffs, despite its losing regular-season record, to the very end. "They played together, they came together and they deserved to be here," he said. "Again, I know a lot of people don't agree with me, but that's too bad. That's the way it is."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The messages have been on the board in the Carolina Panthers team meeting room almost every day since cornerback Josh Norman arrived in 2012, but this one stood out:

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesRon Rivera's leadership helped the Panthers stay together when things got tough.
 He who wasn’t with me in my trials and tribulations, won’t be with me in my triumphs.

“I guess you can stamp that on my forehead, because that’s how I feel right now,’’ Norman said. “A lot of people weren’t there with me through my trials and tribulations and a lot of people didn’t think I would make it this far.’’

The message was placed there by Carolina coach Ron Rivera. He has a different one every day from his collection of more than a thousand quotes that he’s accumulated throughout his playing and coaching career.

Lately, he’s been dipping into what he calls the “top 100 quotes in my life’’ as the Panthers prepare for Saturday’s NFC wild card game against the Arizona Cardinals.

If you want to know why Rivera didn’t lose his locker room when the Panthers (7-8-1) were 3-8-1, why the team didn’t give up under adverse times, this is a big part of it.

Rivera spends almost as much time talking life lessons as he does football, because he knows one ultimately has to do with the other.

“His quotes and all the little things, it’s more than I’ve ever been around,’’ strong safety Roman Harper said.

It doesn’t mean players won’t make mistakes under Rivera. Look no further than defensive end Greg Hardy, who has been on the commissioner’s exempt list since mid-September awaiting his domestic violence case to be resolved.

But it has helped create an atmosphere in the locker room that doesn’t fall apart when times are tough.

“Ron’s very effective. Guys respond to him,’’ tight end Greg Olsen said. “That’s pretty evident with the way guys continue to battle through adversity. We’ve had our fair share over the years, and there’s never the question of the locker room coming undone. There’s never a conflict around here.

“If you look around the league, that’s not the norm.’’

Rivera isn’t the only NFL coach that strikes a good balance between football and life lessons. But he does it more than any coach defensive tackle Colin Cole has been around.

“Coaches I’ve had in the past have been about competing only on the field, and really you could see how some of them lost control of their locker room at times,’’ Cole said. “What he does is he puts on the persona of somebody who cares more than just about your football career. He cares about us growing as men.’’

This was instilled in Rivera as a young player by Seaside (California) High School coach Carl Stephenson. When Rivera’s father, a chief warrant officer in the Army, went to Korea in 1978, Stephenson kept an eye on Rivera and his younger brother.

“He always talked to me about life lessons and doing things right,’’ Rivera recalled.

The lessons continued at the University of California under coach Joe Kapp. Rivera recalled how one summer he was given a construction job in which he had to pound nails, tear down walls and push heavy wheel barrels from 6 a.m. until mid-afternoon, then work out until the early evening.

He recalled how he approached Kapp about why he gave him such a tough job when others had “cushy office jobs.’’

“He said, ‘Did you like it?’ ’’ Rivera said. “I said, ‘No, it was hard.’ He goes: ‘Get your education.’ ’’

Lesson learned.

Some of Rivera’s quotes came from early influences such as Stephenson and Kapp. Some came through his upbringing in a military family.

He tries to bring each out to fit the moment.

“He tries to make us better men as well as football players’’ fullback Mike Tolbert said. “It helps everybody understand he cares about us off the field as well as on the field.’’

Norman didn’t always get the point. There were times after he was benched late in the 2012 season that he didn’t understand the message Rivera was trying to send him.

“But you look back at some of the situations that happened and, hey, I’m better for it,’’ Norman said.

Olsen believes the Panthers are better for it.

“It’s his overall message and overall respect guys have for him as our leader,’’ he said. “He’s the ultimate guy in charge around here. He sets the tone, and guys respond well to that.’’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has spent much of the past two-plus seasons preaching to cornerback Josh Norman about the importance of not losing his cool.

In last season’s NFC divisional playoff loss to San Francisco, Norman could have told the coach to heed his own advice.

“I should have," Norman said with a laugh.

Rivera admittedly got wrapped up in what he considered questionable calls by the officials against two members of his secondary at critical moments. He admittedly lost focus from the big picture for almost a quarter of what turned into a 23-10 loss.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonRon Rivera admittedly lost his focus when complaining about questionable calls in a playoff loss last season.
Repeatedly this week he's said that can’t happen again in Saturday’s NFC wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium.

“I didn’t think the game was being called fairly,” Rivera said. “That’s my fault. At that point, I’ve got to move on to the next detail. I can’t get caught up in that, because the players feed off that. I had a bunch of negative energy and the players started buying into it."

Norman, then a backup, vividly remembers how red Rivera’s face got and the intensity that flared on a coach that normally is under control on the sideline.

“He was heated," said Norman, who has been Carolina’s top cornerback since learning to play more under control. “He was definitely turned up. I don’t know how to describe Coach going AWOL, bananas. I don’t know how you describe that other than he turned red and all kind of stuff.

“Coach is an intense guy."

Rivera wants intensity from his defense on Saturday. He doesn’t want costly penalties and a loss of focus to give the Cardinals opportunities.

“We understand it and we’re going to guard against it," Rivera said. “We’re going to work toward taking care of the little details that we can control, and that’s how we play.”

Norman got the message, and so has the rest of the defense.

“As Coach was saying, he did get caught up a little bit too much," Norman said. “We’ve got to understand the situation. If it’s late in the game or early in the game, we’ve got to be better. We’ve learned from that.

“Coach was wired up. Coach was pretty, pretty hot. At the same time, we’re going to try not to get him in that situation again."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Respect and leadership show up in all shapes and forms.

On Wednesday, it showed for the Carolina Panthers when a rookie defensive back asked strong safety Roman Harper for permission to go to the bathroom before putting in a little overtime practice for Saturday’s NFC wild-card playoff game against Arizona.

Harper
Harper is 32.

Rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere is 23 and rookie free safety Tre Boston is 22. Third-year cornerback Josh Norman is 25.

Harper calls the group that surrounds him in the starting lineup “young and dumb." It’s not an insult; it’s just his way of explaining how they play with controlled, but reckless abandon – not to mention the speed they’ve added -- that has taken Carolina’s secondary to another level.

Apparently, they’re so young and dumb that they feel the need to seek Harper’s permission to go to the restroom during practice.

“You see these young guys looking for him for direction and that is huge," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s been everything we had hoped and advertised in terms of leadership."

Harper signed to a two-year contract with Carolina after being released by NFC South rival New Orleans. After a slow start, he’s come on strong.

He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week on Wednesday after having six tackles and an interception returned 31 yards for a touchdown in Sunday’s 34-3 victory at Atlanta that wrapped up a second straight division title.

Harper also is the lone survivor of the starting secondary since Carolina went with a full youth movement four games ago.

Carolina (7-8-1) is 4-0 since then.

“He’s been a tremendous leader for that group," Rivera said.

And yes, Harper gave the player permission to go to the restroom.

“He did," Rivera said. “But to me, that speaks volumes to what he’s been for us. That to me is thrilling to see as a coach, to see guys following somebody."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott told reporters to be patient when his unit was ranked 28th in the NFL. He reminded them it's a 16-game season and not to judge the product too early.

He was right.

The Panthers (7-8-1) enter Saturday’s NFC wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals (11-5) ranked 10th in the NFL in total defense, the third-straight year McDermott’s unit has achieved a top-10 ranking.

[+] EnlargeSean McDermott
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsDefensive coordinator Sean McDermott shuffled the secondary at midseason and the changes paid dividends, particularly in December.
The recipe, while it took a while to get here, is the same as last season: stop the run, pressure the quarterback with four down linemen and force turnovers.

During their four-game winning streak, opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 22.2. Only the defenses of the Texans (15.2) and defending Super Bowl champion Seattle (15.6) have been better.

That is the recipe for success in the playoffs. Since 2006, according to ESPN Stats & Information, all but two of the Super Bowl champions were ranked in the top 10 in opponent quarterback rating. Five were ranked in the top five.

Defense is big reason the Panthers are favored against a team with four more wins. Defense is a reason they have a chance to advance.

The turnaround began nine games ago. But it didn’t fully take until four games ago when Carolina added more speed in the secondary with a pair of rookies -- Bene' Benwikere replaced Melvin White at corner and Tre Boston replaced Thomas DeCoud at free safety.

And don’t forget Josh Norman emerging as a cornerback with shutdown capability.

Since then all the pieces have fallen into place in terms of getting pressure with the front four and forcing turnovers.

The Panthers have 14 of their 40 sacks and nine of their 26 forced turnovers since the overhaul of the secondary.

“I will just say this, the pass rush and the play of the secondary go hand in hand,’’ defensive tackle Colin Cole said when asked why the front four seems to be so much more effective lately.

A year ago,, the pressure applied by the front four was credited with the strong play of a relatively new secondary. This year the revamping of the secondary has played a big role in the front four finally getting back on track.

“A lot of it has to do with the personnel and the personnel getting comfortable,’’ coach Ron Rivera said. “When I was in San Diego, in the middle of the season we went from, I think, 26th to 14. We’ve gone from 28 to 10. It speaks very well to the coaching job that’s been done, but also to the development of our players.’’

ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, who led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory following the 2002 season, said McDermott deserves more credit than he’s received.

“They might play the game on defense with as much effort as I’ve seen all year,’’ he said. “Dallas and Carolina have two of the great effort defenses in the tournament.’’

It begins with linebacker Luke Kuechly in the middle. Arizona coach Bruce Arians called him the “best middle linebacker in football.’’

“But I think as a group they understand their defense extremely well,’’ Arians added.

The loss of defensive end Greg Hardy before the third game hurt. Last year’s sack leader was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list until the conclusion of his domestic violence case is resolved, which won’t be until sometime in 2015.

Carolina spent the first seven games giving up big plays, uncharacteristically losing gap control. Rivera and McDermott both said at the time players were trying to do too much to replace Hardy and the mistakes were fixable.

McDermott had to use blitzes to apply pressure, which made the Panthers even more vulnerable.

Now that the group has added speed and begun playing with stronger fundamentals, the numbers support the effort.

The Panthers have used four or fewer pass-rushers 31 percent of the time in the last four games. That number was 20 percent in the first 12 games.

Opposing quarterbacks had an average quarterback rating of 80.1 against Carolina in the first 12 games compared to 22.2 the last four. Their completion percentage has dropped from 68.8 percent to 58.1. Their ratio of touchdowns-to-interceptions has gone from 12-7 to 1-5.

The Panthers have sacked or put opposing quarterbacks under duress on 32.5 percent of their dropbacks in the last four games. That ranks second in the NFL.

In their first 12 games, that number was 22.5 percent to rank 28th in the NFL.

As a result the Panthers have allowed only 43 points (10.75 ppg.) during this four-game stretch. Only Seattle with 33 has allowed fewer. Carolina ranked 29th in points allowed (27.8) over the first 12 games.

“Right now we’re doing a much better job of executing the game plan,’’ outside linebacker Thomas Davis said.

And the man putting together the plan is the same person that said not to judge his defense prematurely.

Another good call.
ATLANTA -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 34-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons:
  • Stewart
    Fullback Mike Tolbert was playing the role of reporter for the team television network and interviewing running back Jonathan Stewart, who summed up what many in the locker room felt after Carolina (7-8-1) wrapped up its second consecutive division title. "We repeated as NFC South champions," Stewart said. "But we aren't going to repeat what we did last year." In case you forgot, the Panthers lost a home divisional playoff game to San Francisco.
  • Tolbert, linebacker Thomas Davis and Stewart -- and perhaps a few others -- were dancing and singing "CoCo." The O.T. Genasis song about cocaine was banned by the NBA's Golden State Warriors earlier this month, when the team sang it after wins. The Panthers seemed to have fun with it, though. Said Tolbert, "It's just a song a lot of guys on the team like."
  • Davis
    As strong safety Roman Harper shared how rookie safety Tre Boston predicted on the bus ride to the Georgia Dome that the Panthers would return two interceptions for touchdowns -- a feat that had never been done in team history -- Davis interjected, "Should have been three." Harper returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown in the first half, and Boston returned one 84 yards for a score in the second half. Davis had one called back because of a late flag for contact before the ball arrived. He agreed the official got the call right but hated that it cost him a touchdown.
  • Cornerback Josh Norman was on a roll, talking about all the naysayers, particularly television analysts, who gave up on the Panthers when they were 3-8-1. Said Norman, "You can't put no crown on top of their heads. They don't know."
  • Quarterback Cam Newton was relatively reserved about the victory, but it brought a big smile to his face when he was asked about giving team owner Jerry Richardson consecutive trips to the playoffs for the first time in the team's 20-year history. "For a man that is a great person, a great human being, and runs a top-notch organization, what better way [to show our appreciation] than to give him this type of win today," Newton said.
  • Coach Ron Rivera, when asked if he believed the Panthers would be here last month when the team had only three wins: "Yes, I believe it. I believed in those guys. ... I just felt if we kept playing and kept taking care of our business, we would get that opportunity."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- "TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS!" yelled a voice from the back of the room as Carolina Panthers strong safety Roman Harper conducted a recent charity auction at an uptown restaurant.

Heads turned.

The boisterous announcement of the bid on an autographed jersey from middle linebacker Luke Kuechly came from running back Jonathan Stewart.

The seventh-year player out of Oregon typically is soft-spoken and often downright quiet to the point of seeming shy. He doesn't offer much in terms of elaboration to reporters with what normally are short answers.

So when he yelled, it seemed out of character.

"He is quiet around me," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "But when he's quiet and you see that look in his eye, he has a fire. And when that gets lit, and it is lit right now, it is fun to be around him and watch him."

[+] EnlargeJonathan Stewart
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJonathan Stewart's 437 yards rushing in the last four games are the most in the NFL.
Stewart's 437 yards rushing in the last four games are the most in the NFL. Because of injuries, he had only 516 yards in the previous two seasons combined.

He had 122 yards on 24 carries in Sunday's 17-13 victory over Cleveland. He also caught the game-winning touchdown, a 9-yard pass from Cam Newton with 7:07 left.

One could argue he's been Carolina's most valuable player in the team's playoff run. The Panthers (6-8-1) certainly will need him at his best in Sunday's showdown at Atlanta (6-9) for the NFC South title.

"He is running well and is tough to bring down," Shula said. "I know he will be ready to go this weekend, and we will have to utilize him as well as those other guys."

Stewart didn't do much in a 19-17 loss to Atlanta in Week 11. He had seven carries for 24 yards, splitting duties with DeAngelo Williams.

Williams suffered a broken hand in the first half of the next game against Minnesota. That's when Stewart took over and, as Shula said, caught fire.

He's running so well that, judging from social media, it might start a riot locally if the Panthers went back to Williams as the starter.

There's really no reason to go back. Stewart, 27, is the future. Williams, who will be 32 before next season, is at the end of his career.

The two-headed monster known as "Double Trouble'' when the two became the first backs from one team to top 1,100 yards in a single season (2009) is now a one-headed monster.

Few in the NFL are tougher to bring down than Stewart. Defensive backs, including his own, cringe when he's running at them with a full head of speed.

"I call him little Ninja Turtle," Carolina cornerback Josh Norman said. "It's unbelievable how that little man runs the freaking football. Every footstep he has, it's just a will that he has to not go down and be defeated."

That Stewart is completely healthy for the first time since ankle injuries forced him to miss 17 of 32 games the past two seasons makes his will to succeed even stronger. He's found a comfort running the ball that he finds only one other place -- on the piano.

Stewart doesn't read music like he reads defenses. He plays by ear. But he's an accomplished pianist. You'll often hear him in training camp tickling the ivory on the baby grand in the lobby outside the Wofford College cafeteria.

He has a studio in his high-rise apartment that gives him a spectacular view of Charlotte when playing and recording.

"Happy as he is, he's happiest when he's in his lab," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "His lab is making beats and playing the piano and producing music. When I see him in a zone, that's the Jonathan Stewart I know.

"He's got a lot of beats. He makes a lot of songs. He's definitely got a lot of talent in that area."

Tight end Ed Dickson went to college with Stewart, so he's been listening to the running back on the piano since their freshman season.

"He's definitely got a second career in music once he's done with football," Dickson said. "He's a very good artist."

Stewart also can sing. He shared a few Christmas notes with his fellow running backs on Wednesday, then disappeared before reporters made their way to him.

"He's got a creative side to him," coach Ron Rivera said.

For the moment, the Panthers simply need Stewart to create first downs the way he did to close out Sunday's game with a 30-yard run. As good as he is on the piano, he's better on the football field.

"I can't say that for sure in music because I'm not a guy that has an ear for it," Tolbert said. "But he's great in football."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman won't be exchanging Christmas presents this week with Atlanta Falcons wide receivers Harry Douglas and Devin Hester.

Norman
But the three did exchange a few words, as well as pushes and shoves, in a heated exchange during a Week 11 game at Bank of America Stadium in which they were among five players fined.

Norman wouldn't be surprised if it got chippy again on Sunday at the Georgia Dome with the NFC South title and a home playoff game up for grabs.

"I guarantee you one thing, I'm going to be ready for anything," Norman said on Tuesday.

The Panthers (6-8-1) trailed Atlanta (6-9) 16-3 late in the first quarter when things became heated. It began when Carolina safety Roman Harper was called for unnecessary roughness on wide receiver Roddy White.

Running back Antone Smith rushed in and shoved Harper in the chest and a small, short-lived scrum broke out. White and Harper were fined $8,268, the same amount the others were.

On the next play, Douglas got physical with Norman while blocking and dragged him to the ground by his facemask. Hester rushed in and lunged on top of Norman from behind.

"I just know that coming in, No. 83 (Douglas), I don't even know his name, he came in and just went to go block me as I was running into the pile," Norman recalled. "He like hit me in the back of my head. I just turned around like, ‘Really? What would you do that for?'

"He grabbed my face mask and we got to tussling. [Hester], or whoever, came over there and started doing that extra stuff. I just knew I wasn't taking it. At the end of the day we got flagged for it and fined."

The Panthers actually played better after that, outscoring Atlanta 14-3 in final quarter of the 19-17 loss.

Norman doesn't know if the fights sparked the rally. He just knows he would do the same thing if the same thing happens again.

"I'm not going to lose my cool," Norman said. "But at the same time I'm not going to back down from anybody, either. I'm going to go out there and we're going to play our style of football, and they're going to play theirs.

"May the best man win. That's all I can say."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera couldn't help but chuckle when asked how he would describe cornerback Josh Norman.

"I'm still trying to figure it out," he said. "He's exciting. At the same time, he's scary. I mean, there's a lot of words that go through my mind right now with Josh.

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesPanthers cornerback Josh Norman held Falcons receiver Julio Jones to six receptions for 59 yards in the team's first meeting of the season on Nov. 16.
"But the one thing he is, he's passionate. He really loves the game, playing the game. He has a flare to him, his own way, his own style of things. He doesn't march to the same beat as everybody else."

What Rivera wouldn't call Norman is a "shutdown" corner as the third-year player out of Coastal Carolina has played like the second half of the season.

Nothing against Norman. Rivera just doesn't like the phrase.

Neither does defensive coordinator Sean McDermott -- unless the description applies to an elite player. Nothing against Norman, he doesn't believe his 6-foot, 195-pound corner has reached elite status.

But Norman is at least thinking like a shutdown corner. Not long after Sunday's 17-13 victory over Cleveland, he already was talking about his next challenge in Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones.

Norman knows for the Panthers (6-8-1) to beat the Falcons (6-9) for the NFC South title and the right to host a first-round playoff game, he must keep the NFL's second-leading receiver (100 catches, 1,535 yards) in check as he did the first time they met.

"Oh man, Julio, that's the manimal," Norman said. "That's a man-animal. He is at the top right now. He is classified as one of the best, ultimate competitor. I would put him up there with the likes of Calvin Johnson, if not over the top. We know we have a huge challenge in that guy and what he brings and how he imposes his will on defenders."

Jones has 28 catches for 555 yards and two touchdowns in his last three games. That included a 259-yard performance against Green Bay that Norman mentioned specifically by number.

What Norman didn't mention was how he held the "manimal" to six catches for 59 yards and no touchdowns in a Week 11 game in Charlotte.

While Rivera doesn't buy into the term "shutdown corner," he liked what Norman did that day and agrees Jones is a "manimal."

"It's kind of like Danimal," Rivera said of former Chicago Bears defensive tackle Dan Hampton. "We used to call him half man, half animal, too."

Norman has a bit of "manimal" in him, particularly when it comes to covering the league's top receivers. In addition to Jones, he held Philadelphia's Jeremy Maclin to three catches for 38 yards, rookie of the year candidate Mike Evans of Tampa Bay to two catches for 13 yards and Cleveland's Josh Gordon to four catches for 45 yards.

The only one to catch a touchdown was Evans on an 8-yard pass in the first quarter. Norman was beyond angry after that one, holding Evans to one catch the rest of the game.

"I just took myself to another place and let him know about it every chance I got when I was in front of him," Norman said. "It's a kind of place I don't want to take myself but we have to go there."

Norman laughed when asked how he gets to that place that he'll likely have to go against Jones once again.

He wasn't laughing about the 15-yard penalty and potential fine for what officials ruled hitting a defenseless defender in the first half against Cleveland. He said "they got that wrong all the way."

But he was able to laugh about his fumble after a spectacular interception and 33-yard return in the fourth quarter against the Browns.

"I was blessed that God and his angels allowed me to catch it, and the devil and the demons were allowed to steal my joy," Norman said. "At the end of the day, it's all good because we got that 'W' and that's all that matters."

Norman assured he'll tuck the ball high and tight after his next interception. It was another lesson learned for a player that has learned a lot of lessons since losing his starting job as a rookie in 2012 because he lacked discipline.

But you're starting to understand why so many thoughts went through Rivera's mind when asked to describe him.

"He is a unique individual," Rivera said. "I like who he is. I like where he is. He's in a really good place. He's fought through a lot and he's learned and he's grown."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 17-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns:
  • Olsen
    Olsen
    A month ago, tight end Greg Olsen stood in front of his locker after a 31-13 loss at Minnesota and said, "Right now, we're not very good." After Sunday's third straight win that put the Panthers (6-8-1) in position to play Atlanta (6-9) for the NFC South title next weekend at the Georgia Dome, Olsen's tune had changed. "When you don't play well, you deserve to lose," he said. "It's very frustrating to play below what your expectations are. At that point in time, we weren't very good. We were playing like a bad team. Now we're playing like a better team. It's funny: When you play better, you win."
  • Quarterback Cam Newton wasn't happy with the way the Bank of America Stadium crowd cheered when Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel left in the first half with a hamstring injury. "I'm a fan of his, just like a lot of people are," Newton said. "But it's a lot of things he has to learn. The only thing I can say is it was sad to see the crowd's response when he was getting hurt, man. I just think it was classless at that time. Anytime a person is hurt, you don't celebrate. I've had that done in my career. It takes the integrity out of the game."
  • Coach Ron Rivera on playing for the NFC South title: "It's definitely not how we planned it, but it's what we're working towards."
  • General manager Dave Gettleman, who has drawn a lot of heat for moves he made during the offseason, walked through the back corner of the locker room with a big smile.
  • As ugly as Sunday's win was, fullback Mike Tolbert wasn't going there. "A win is a win," he said. "We don't care how it comes. I'm not going to put an adjective on it." The Panthers, by the way, are 3-1 since Tolbert returned from injured reserve.
  • Cornerback Josh Norman stood in the locker and smiled as strong safety Roman Harper described how Norman should have protected the ball after his second-half interception that he fumbled away. "I'll be a much smarter guy in traffic next time," Norman said. "I'll have it high and tight."

W2W4: Browns vs. Panthers

December, 21, 2014
12/21/14
8:00
AM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The playoff scenario for the Carolina Panthers is simple.

To win the NFC South, the Panthers (5-8-1) must beat Cleveland on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium and Atlanta the following Sunday in the Georgia Dome, and hope New Orleans (6-8) loses one of its final two games against Atlanta (5-9) and Tampa Bay (2-12).

There is a scenario in which the Panthers win the division with a 6-9-1 record, but it’s not likely. There also is a scenario in which they are eliminated Sunday should they lose to the Browns (7-7) and New Orleans wins.

Bottom line, win and regardless of what happens between the Falcons and Saints, the Panthers have a shot to repeat as NFC South champions in the regular-season finale.

Should the Panthers and Falcons win, that game would decide it.

Here are three things to keep an eye on for the Panthers against Cleveland:
  • Cam Newton. No surprise here. Newton is returning after missing last Sunday's 19-17 victory over Tampa Bay, which came five days after suffering two small fractures in his lower back in an automobile accident. Newton has shown no ill effects from the accident in which his 1998 pickup rolled after being struck by another car. He says there’s no pain, which is good because he doesn’t take pain injections. Newton’s ability to protect himself has been the biggest concern for coach Ron Rivera this week. Now the concern will be how Newton responds to a hit. Keep an eye on how often Newton runs the read-option and whether or not he slides or dives forward at the end of a play. The read-option is a big part of the offense with Newton on the field. It’s hard to imagine the Panthers going with their franchise quarterback if he’s not able to play to his strength.
  • Johnny Football. Yes, Johnny Manziel was a nightmare in his debut against Cincinnati. But the Panthers can’t relax, understanding Manziel still has the potential to hurt them with the skill set that made him such a weapon in college. That’s why they’ve been studying film of what he did in the preseason and college as much or more than in the 30-0 loss to Cincinnati. It will be important to keep Manziel in the pocket and force him to use his arm. It will also be important for cornerback Josh Norman -- who has been effective in shutting down Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans in past weeks -- to take away wide receiver Josh Gordon. With one fewer weapon, the Panthers could opt to dedicate a player to shadow Manziel.
  • Exploit Cleveland’s run defense. The Browns rank 31st in the NFL against the run, allowing 137.6 yards per game. The Panthers have gotten into a nice groove, averaging 116.4 yards rushing per game on the season, with nine consecutive games gaining more than 100 yards. They’ve averaged 190 yards rushing in their last three games, with Jonathan Stewart averaging 104.3 during that span. All-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams possibly could return from a broken bone in his right hand. The Panthers have fitted Williams for a playing cast. If the running game is effective, that opens up the play-action game and keeps the defense from coming hard after Newton, which keeps Newton more out of harm's way.

 

Browns vs. Panthers preview

December, 18, 2014
12/18/14
8:00
AM ET
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. TV: CBS

Welcome to Johnny Football versus Who Will Get The Football.

There's still some uncertainty whether the Carolina Panthers will start Cam Newton or Derek Anderson at quarterback opposite the Cleveland Browns' Johnny Manziel.

If it's Newton, who broke two small bones in his lower back when his truck rolled in a two-vehicle accident last week, it will be the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner versus the 2012 winner.

If it's Anderson, it will be the Browns' quarterback of the past (2005-09) versus the Browns' quarterback of the future.

The Panthers remain in the hunt for the NFC South title. At 5-8-1, they need to win out and they need New Orleans to lose one of its final two games to repeat as division champions. The Browns (7-7) have lost three straight and four of their past five to fall out of playoff contention.

ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon are here to break this one down:

Newton: Pat, now that the Browns have opened up the Johnny Football can of worms, do you think he gives Cleveland the best chance to win this week?

McManamon: If it's based on hype and hope, sure. He can win. But so can Connor Shaw, and he's on the practice squad. If you base it on college achievement, Manziel should win. He was tremendous in college. But college achievement means less than nothing in the NFL. If you base it on reality and the way Manziel played against Cincinnati, he gives them less than a 1-in-10 chance to win. Not even Mike Pettine tried to sell the "best chance to win" card, as Monday he said Manziel gives the Browns "an opportunity to win."

Manziel should improve in his second start. Logic says there's nothing to do but improve. The Browns have to desperately hope he does, because if Manziel doesn't show more than he did in his debut there are serious issues at quarterback in 2015. As for winning, the final two games are about evaluating No. 2.

Let's flip the script on Manziel, David. The Bengals were nearly jumping out of their uniforms to hit, sack and taunt Manziel on Sunday, and they were largely successful. Do you feel that's an attitude the Panthers will share, and would you expect some money signs on Sunday?

Newton: I haven't gotten that sense. The Panthers simply are happy when they get to the quarterback this season. They have only 31 sacks after leading the league with 60 last season. The absence of 2013 sack leader Greg Hardy, who is on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is heard in 2015, is a major factor there. And if anybody was going to do money signs it would be Hardy, who is all about the money. Perhaps cornerback Josh Norman would have a little fun with the money sign, but he'll be busy shadowing Josh Gordon. Never know, though.

Who do you think the Browns would rather see at quarterback for the Panthers? Newton and his running ability, if indeed the back injury will allow him to run? Or Anderson, who will face his former with something to prove?

McManamon: I'd guess they'd much rather see Anderson, because nobody wants to face an effective passer who also can run. If a quarterback is one or the other, defenses can take away what he does best. If a guy does things as well as Newton does throwing and running, the challenge increases. In the week leading up to Manziel's debut, Pettine admitted that it's easier when a defense can draw an X on the field and envision the quarterback being near that X most of the time. Newton is a 58 percent passer with 16 touchdowns. He averages 5 yards per carry. Anderson has a big arm and more experience than he had in Cleveland, and he'd be motivated to beat the Browns. But I'd still guess the Browns would rather face an immobile Anderson than a mobile Newton.

Are there any apologies taking place in Charlotte for the fact the Panthers are 5-8-1 and in the playoff hunt? Can they really win the division?

Newton: They hear the jokes nationally, but around here the fans and players are thankful there is a meaningful game in December. I'm pretty sure the Browns would trade places in a heartbeat if it meant they had a chance to make the playoffs. Can the Panthers really win the NFC South? As far as I'm concerned, it all comes down to what happens between New Orleans and Atlanta this Sunday. If the Falcons beat the Saints, as they did in Week 1, I can see Carolina winning out to take the division. If the Saints win, I can't see any way they lose to Tampa Bay in the regular-season finale. Then again, it has been a wacky season in the South, so predicting anything seems kind of silly.

What's the biggest reason for the Browns' skid after a solid start that had them looking like a contender to win the division?

McManamon: Three things. First, injuries depleted depth. The loss of center Alex Mack was crippling to the running game. Injuries to the defensive line and ILB Karlos Dansby affected the defense. Second, the running game took a serious turn south, which affected the play-action passing game. Finally, the uncertainty at quarterback affected Brian Hoyer, who pressed, and the team, which for the umpteenth year in a row found itself in the midst of a raging quarterback debate. One year the Browns will find themselves in a season when they know the starter and use the backup as a backup. Until that happens, real success will be elusive.

Luke Kuechly is an Ohio guy, from Cincinnati. His numbers seem nearly impossible. Is he that active, and does he rank among the best defensive players you've covered?

Newton: You're right, the numbers -- including 138 tackles this sesaon -- are ridiculous. At times it seems Kuechly is in on every play. While I'm partial to Carolina's original middle linebacker, Sam Mills, even at his best Sam wasn't in on the number of plays Kuechly is. I hesitate to say he's the best defensive player I ever covered. End Julius Peppers was pretty special. And when it came to sacks, Kevin Greene was a beast. But as far as all-around player, few can touch Kuechly. His work ethic is second to none, and he's always looking for ways to improve. He usually does, too. He'll be a factor in this game as he is in most for Carolina.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 19-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
  • Quarterback Cam Newton, who did not play after suffering two small fractures in his lower back during a Tuesday automobile accident near Bank of America Stadium, sat by himself in his locker, checking out messages on his phone while his teammates celebrated. Asked what it was like being a spectator, he said, "You're talking to that guy today." Newton was referring to his replacement, Derek Anderson, who completed 25 of 40 pass attempts for 277 yards and one touchdown for a QB rating of 91.4.
  • Anderson
    Anderson on doing Newton's trademark first-down signal with his arms after running for a first down in the first half: "That was for my guy [Newton]. Somebody told me I wouldn't do it. I said if I get a run for a first down, I'll do it."
  • Cornerback Josh Norman on whether it feels real to be in a tight playoff race with New Orleans (5-8) and Atlanta (5-9) despite having a 5-8-1 record: "I don't know. Pinch me and we'll see. We've got to get these games. They're all lining up for us."
  • Somehow Norman wound up talking about his contact lenses. That led to a conversation about defensive end Greg Hardy (aka The Kraken) and the black contact lenses he wore in games before being placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. "I miss that guy," Norman said. "Me and him out there together ... If we were on the field together, somebody would have to carry us off in a straitjacket."
  • Defensive end Charles Johnson, who had three tackles behind the line of scrimmage, on his strong finish to the season: "Just maxing out, man. Finishing the season strong."
  • Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who caught Carolina's only touchdown pass, said people can make a mockery of the Panthers being in the playoff hunt if they want. "People can make all the jokes they want," he said, "but at the end of the day, we're playing meaningful games."
  • Carolina coach Ron Rivera said he won't decide whether Newton is healthy enough to play next Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns until he sees him on the field Monday and Wednesday.

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