The Carolina Panthers’ defensive backs last season gave themselves the “No-Name Secondary” nickname, honoring their mostly nondescript NFL backgrounds and lack of cachet around the league.
Most of the no-names moved on, leaving second-year cornerback Melvin White as the only returning starter in the secondary.
White says the group doesn’t yet a have a nickname, although Panthers coaches and fans will have a much better idea about the secondary’s talent level after Sunday’s game against Detroit and its prolific passing attack.
During a 35-14 win against the Giants on Monday night, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford rang up 346 passing yards on 22 completions, for an average of 15.7 yards per completion. Detroit’s average of 10.8 yards per pass attempts ranks second behind only Pittsburgh (11.1).
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The Lions added to their receiving corps during the offseason by signing former Seahawks wideout Golden Tate, who caught six passes for 96 yards against the Giants. Running back Reggie Bush last season joined Billy Sims as the only players in Lions history to rush for 1,000 yards and finish with at least 500 receiving yards in the same season.
But the Lions’ offense revolves around Calvin Johnson, the 6-foot-5, 236-pounder known as Megatron who is widely considered the league’s best receiver.
Rather than get psyched out about the matchup, Panthers reserve cornerback Josh Norman is taking a different tack in preparing for Johnson, who had seven catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns in the victory against the Giants.
“Mega-tronnnn,” said Norman, stretching out the final syllable. “I’ll try to be Optimus Prime, brother. That’s his common foe (among Transformers). I’m having fun with it, I really am.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he wants Norman, the third-year player from Coastal Carolina, to get more reps this week after starters White and Antoine Cason played every defensive snap against the Buccaneers.
Norman said his dad told him about Rivera’s comments about increased playing time, and he was all for it, especially the chance to line up across from Johnson.
“Just to go up against something like that at that caliber, man, it makes you so much better. I think just the competition level is rising,” Norman said. “We’re going to have fun with it because that’s the No. 1 wide receiver in the league right now. If you can’t get up for that then what’s the point?”
The Giants were beaten a couple times when their corners played press coverage on Johnson, who easily escaped the jam and created separation.
The Panthers have not been a big press-coverage defense under coordinator Sean McDermott, who usually asks his cornerbacks to play off in Carolina’s Cover 3 zone.
But White says the Panthers will have to vary their looks against Johnson.
“You’ve got to mix it up with him. You just can’t go with one (technique) and try to do that the whole game,” White said. “You’ve got to give him different looks to look at, to worry about.”
The Panthers’ corners aren’t as big as Seattle’s duo of Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell. But White and newcomer Antoine Cason are both 6-1, while Norman is 6 feet.
That’s bigger than the corner rotation the Panthers used at the end of last season, when White played alongside Captain Munnerlyn (5-9) and Drayton Florence (6 feet).
“It is a bigger group. It is a physical group. They are long. They try to use their experience,” Rivera said of the corners. “Cason has a tremendous amount of experience. Saw a lot of it last week (against Tampa Bay), especially when you break the tape down. You watch the way he plays and you watch how he sees things and how he reacts. You can tell he’s starting to get his feel for being a starter again. I think that’s good for him and it will be good for us.”
Cason was with Rivera in San Diego when Rivera was the Chargers’ defensive coordinator. Cason came to Carolina on a one-year deal worth the veteran minimum $795,000 after being used as an extra defensive back last year in his only season with the Cardinals.
Cason had a good, all-around game at Tampa Bay, collecting a team-high nine tackles while intercepting a pass and finishing with two pass breakups. Cason’s history would have made him a fit on the No-Name Secondary from 2013.
But the current group could make a name for itself – good or bad – depending on how it fares against the Lions.