Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman likes to use any slight – real or imagined – to get into his dark place before and during games.
Exhibit A: Norman’s shutdown of Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas after Bryant allegedly disrespected Norman during the pre-game, according to Norman’s teammates.
But a few days before Norman’s highly anticipated matchup with Atlanta wideout Julio Jones, the NFL’s leading receiver hasn’t provided even a snippet of bulletin board material. During a conference call Wednesday with Charlotte reporters and again Thursday at the Falcons’ facility, Jones had nothing but praise for Norman.
Jones said Norman could “do it all” as a corner, whether playing physically near the line of scrimmage or backing off in coverage.
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Without an evil nemesis, how is Norman going to get into his “Dark Knight” character Sunday at Bank of America Stadium?
“I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to see,” Norman said. “I think guys are starting to catch on not trying to rub me the wrong way. But at the same time he’s a competitor and I feel as if he goes about doing his job in a more professional way and not giving me anything to go off of. We’ll have to see on Sunday what he brings to the table.”
I think guys are starting to catch on not trying to rub me the wrong way.
Panthers cornerback Josh Norman
While Jones played nice in the lead-up to Sunday’s game, Norman found motivation from another source.
Former Patriots defensive back Rodney Harrison, an NBC analyst, gave Jones the edge over Norman during a video on “ProFootballTalk” on Wednesday.
Harrison called Norman the best cornerback in the league, but said Norman hasn’t seen a guy on Jones’ level.
Responding to a fan’s tweet on Harrison’s comments, Norman responded with a tweet saying Harrison was “horrible at his job.”
Norman was more diplomatic on the topic with reporters Thursday.
“I’ll have my assessment after the game of (Harrison) and what he thinks about that,” Norman said. “I will say this, as a defensive back in the league, he’s played there, I’m a bit disappointed.”
But Norman and Jones have formed a kind of mutual admiration society this week.
Norman, a fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina in 2012, couldn’t even muster up any ire over Jones’ blue-blood football background. The Falcons traded five picks to Cleveland to move up in the 2011 draft and take Jones, a former Alabama standout, at No. 6.
“I just saw him come from Alabama. He had dreads and he was just killing everybody,” Norman said. “I got here and got to play him and I was excited for that.”
Atlanta’s Julio Jones leads the league with 102 catches for 1,338 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
After a couple of seasons moving in and out of the lineup, Norman stuck as a starter last season. And the two games against Jones were validation – if not for the confident Norman, then for the rest of the league – that Norman belonged at the table with the best corners in the league.
When the two were matched one-on-one, Norman held Jones to seven catches on 14 targets, with no touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had a 63.4 passer rating when throwing to Jones with Norman covering him, according to PFF.
Both have raised their levels of play this season.
Jones leads the league with 102 catches for 1,338 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
Norman, the leading vote-getter among corners in the fans’ Pro Bowl balloting, had four interceptions (including two returned for touchdowns) in the first four games before teams stopped throwing his way much.
But with Jones averaging 13 targets a game this season, Norman expects to be busy Sunday – just like he likes it.
“We’re going to be active,” Norman said. “I think they’re going to activate back to me to where we were the first games of the season.”
Whether Norman goes “dark” remains to be seen. After the first couple of plays against Dallas, Norman went after Bryant during the play and got in his face afterward.
Norman held Bryant to one catch for 6 yards when he was covering him, and he drew an unsportsmanlike penalty for a prolonged celebration after knocking away a fourth-quarter pass intended for Bryant in the end zone.
There’s something about (Josh Norman), the way he looks at things, that’s the alter-ego that he has in terms of person vs. football player.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera
Panthers coach Ron Rivera says Norman’s “dark place” routine has its moments.
“There’s something about him, the way he looks at things, that’s the alter-ego that he has in terms of person vs. football player. His meek, mild-mannered self and then there’s the Dark Knight, as he likes to call it,” Rivera said.
Rivera says Norman “flips the switch” when he gets on the field, which is how Rivera once described Greg Hardy’s transformation into the Kraken on game days.
“It’s his personality. It’s who he is,” Rivera said of Norman. “Do I like it? Yes, to an extent. I just hate to see him go a little past that line.”
Panthers corner Bené Benwikere says Norman has been more focused on the Panthers’ scheme this week rather than the individual matchup with Jones. Benwikere believes it’s because Norman has already faced Jones, while the Thanksgiving game was his first matchup with Bryant.
“Julio’s a cool guy. I like playing him. I like going against him just because how he brings things to the table. His explosiveness, I like that a lot,” Norman said.
“I respect him. I don’t see why I wouldn’t. He’s the Manimal. Give him all the props and praise there is. He’s been doing it for quite some time now and it shows.”