For every NFL player who has found himself underrated, benched and in the unenviable position of having to figure out how to break through barriers to even keep his job, Panthers cornerback Josh Norman can provide a bit of inspiration. Norman has been there.
The reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Month, who leads the league with four interceptions and two touchdown returns totaling 110 yards, was a fifth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina in the 2012 draft, and the biggest news he made in his rookie campaign was when he got a bit overconfident with Steve Smith in non-contact minicamps. Smith's response (“This isn't Coastal Carolina”) was about what one would expect. Norman was benched later that year after 12 starts—his coaches felt he was too tentative on the field. He played in just seven games in 2013 with no starts, and it wasn't until a midseason roster shakeup in 2014 that he was able to show all he'd learned from that adversity.
From then on, Norman has kept opposing receivers on lockdown, and he looks very much like the NFL's next great shutdown cornerback. According to Pro Football Focus's metrics, Norman has been targeted 35 times in 181 total snaps this season, allowing 15 catches for 129 yards (37 yards after the catch) and one touchdown while grabbing those four picks. He leads the NFL in opponent passer rating allowed with a ridiculous 23.1. Darrelle Revis ranks second at 23.8. It's probably time to put Norman's name in the the Revis/Richard Sherman discussion, because this is not a one-year wonder.
Last season, Norman allowed an opponent passer rating of 53.2 on 379 passing snaps and 58 targets, putting him fourth in the league behind Indianapolis' Vontae Davis, Denver's Chris Harris and Sherman. At 6'0 and 203 pounds, he's a big pass defender who jumps routes with great leverage and anticipation, he's worked very hard on his route understanding, and he's certainly far more aggressive that he used to be.
Amazing what hard work and confidence will do. When I spoke to Norman on Monday, I asked him about his ascent from a marginal player to a great one, and the benchings in between.
“I had never sat down on a bench to watch somebody else play, when I knew I was better than them,” he said. “It was a real, real big piece of humble pie, and I just had to take it. So, it was about watching from the outside in, and growing, and nurturing myself as a human being. Once I was able to understand, I got back to that mindset of attacking that I used to have. Things started to roll for me, and doors started to open up that didn't think were going to open. I came back in the second year to be in the rotation as a nickel guy. Then some plays happened, and I was set down for the rest of the entire year.
“And that was the part where I was really broken down. I remember trying to better myself, thinking ‘What am I doing wrong?’ Knowing that this is just a challenge and an obstacle—[people wanted] to see how I would respond to this. So, I worked my tail off, man. I drove myself mad just working. And the third year came around and I was in the rotation. Things happened, and I was inserted into the Ravens game, and once that happened, I never looked back.”
Now, with fellow young cornerback Bene Benwikere playing very well, the Panthers have quite a formidable tandem, but Norman is clearly the point man. Below, he reviews the tape from a few of the plays that have propelled his breakout start to the 2015 season, going deep on the small details behind top cornerback play.
Doug Farrar: This interception of Blake Bortles in Week 1 on a quick pass to running back T.J. Yeldon with 9:08 left in the third quarter was interesting in that you seemed to have it read all the way. And when I watched your tape over the last week, the word that kept popping into my head was “anticipation.” How did you read this particular play?
Josh Norman: Yeah, [Bortles] kept throwing the ball to me! I was kinda like, “Wow, really?” So, I thought, “Okay ... well, let's see if we can make a believer out of him.” He continued to do it, so I wound up in a different coverage. I was sloughing the coverage—we were in Cover 3 and I played it differently. I ended up seeing that running back motioning out, and he ran a speed out, and I was locked in on it. I had perfect leverage and position on the play, and as soon as I saw the quarterback lift his arm two inches up, my feet broke before my mind could. It was just like, out of my shoes, oh my God, I am breaking for this ball. And when I did, I just made sure I caught it. That was the biggest thing—just make sure I catch it, and get the heck up out of there. Soon as I got in the end zone, man, I had a ball. I had a blast.
Farrar: I liked this play against the Texans early in the first quarter in Week 2. Didn't seem like a big deal compared to a pick-six, but again, the anticipation and aggressiveness in blowing up this receiver screen from Ryan Mallett to Cecil Shorts for a five-yard loss was impressive. You're taking off like a shot from the snap. What allows you to do that with such confidence and aggression, without fear of the broken play?
Norman: Oh, heck yeah, man. That's like, anticipating the play before it happens. That's about film study and dedication to your craft. Watching it over and over again, and taking what you see on film and on the practice field into a game. When I said I anticipated that, I knew when they went into that formation what usually comes out of it, so I just wanted to make sure the safety is covering me up over the top. And then, I'm telling you, as soon as that ball breaks, it doesn't matter who is in front of me—I'm going to get to that ball. That's what my mindset was on that play, and as soon as that ball was released, I shot in there.
Farrar: This Week 3 interception of a Josh McCown pass to Brandin Cooks against the Saints (a game-saver, it should be noted) was memorable for your leaping catch, but I was intrigued by the way you both stayed with Cooks's route and kind of baited McCown into thinking the deep pass was open. Were you playing bail coverage here?
Norman: Well, somewhat. That was different, because that was Cover 4. That's how we mix up the coverages to where it looks like a Cover 3, but it isn't. [Cooks] ran a stutter-go, and a lot of teams are trying to hit me with double moves now—I'm not sure why they are, but I'm maintaining my discipline. Every week, I try to find something to work on and make better, and that week was about being disciplined on double moves, making sure I still “top-shoulder” receivers. He hit me with a stutter-go, and I made sure I maintained my leverage. I didn't want to break on it too fast, because if I did, I don't think McCown would have thrown the ball. But as soon as I saw his arm go back, and Cooks got a little bit ahead of me, I made a beeline straight for the end zone. Just driving to the ball, and I was like, “Oh, yeah—see ball, get ball.”
Farrar: That's one of the subtleties of coverage, right? Where you have to draw the quarterback and receiver into believing it's open when it really isn't?
Norman: Yeah, in a way. It's definitely a gift. I was given a lot of talent, and I have to work as hard as possible to meet those expectations. But that's what it was—just timing the ball and jumping up there, and just going and getting it.
Farrar: The 46-yard pick-six against Tampa Bay last Sunday, where you waited and then threw yourself into the route—that looked a bit like the pick-six against Jacksonville. Was that a similar coverage concept at all?
Norman: It looked the same, yeah. That coverage was a trap technique. When the No. 2 receiver [tight end Brandon Myers] comes to the boundary, you've got to make sure you break on that. I had a safety over the top, and on that play, I just looked at it and anticipated the throw. I was just trying to crouch down like a tiger [laughs] so the quarterback wouldn't see me. Kind of disguising it. I don't think he saw me at all, and when he put the ball up, I said, “I cannot believe this—this is really coming to me!” So I broke on it the same way I broke on the one against Jacksonville, and again, just wanted to make sure I caught the ball. Then, I just ran as fast as I could, because I didn't want to get caught from behind by a quarterback [laughs]. That would not have been a Top 10 Play moment.
It's clear that Norman speaks with a lot of confidence. He may appear cocky at times without vocal inflections to provide context, but in talking to him, I felt I was speaking to a player who knows he's worked for what's coming to him but can't believe his good fortune at times. This really came through when I asked him about the feeling in the building about the 4–0 Panthers.
“Man, we're at an all-time high right now,” he said. “It's just awesome. It sucks when you lose, because that whole week is just so ... ‘Ugh!’ Nobody wants to go through that week. Everybody wants to do something to win, and I think we have a presence about ourselves right now. We don't want to let our next man down. We don't want to let our brothers down, regardless of what happens. We want to come back fighting strong, and giving our best effort and our best performance. We know each other, what we can do.
“This group is as tight as it's ever been. I mean, I'm out here giving hugs to grown men! Where else do they do that at? I've never done that, but I'm doing it, and it's a great feeling. I enjoy coming to work. I can't say I enjoyed coming to work for a long time before, but now, I can honestly say that I enjoy coming to this locker room each and every morning to be with these guys. We're having fun, and we're doing it at a very high level.”
Norman has been asked a lot recently what it feels like to be rated as the next great player at his position, and his answer to me was intriguing. What may come across as arrogance on the page really isn't, in my opinion. This is a young guy trying to find his way and make his own mark on the game.
“I'm unique in my own special way,” he concluded. “I'm not like any other cornerback—they all have their things they do, and that's cool. I respect that. But I'm in another group right now; I'm in another class. I'm not trying to say I'm better than anybody else, but when people talk about me, I don't want to be mentioned among Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis, even though they're at the top of the group. I want to be my own unique individual self. I bring something to the table, and so do they, and they have their strengths, and that's great. But I feel that I've been blessed to be strong in what I do, and I've always felt that, even if you go back to high school and ask about me, or go to college and ask about me and how I take this game as a player and try to take it through the roof.
“If you feel you're better than me, line up and prove it. I promise you, I will show you different. That's how I feel, and if you don't feel that way, you shouldn't be playing this game. You shouldn't be on the field. If I feel that I'm better than someone else, that's not me, that's what I'm putting on the field. It speaks for itself. Anyone else can say what they want or think what they want, but I know who I am and what I bring as an individual in this league. That's what I'm trying to do, regardless of whoever thinks different.
“But I am different, in my own special way. I'm like nobody else, and I want that to show up.”
It's certainly showing up—on tape and everywhere else.