Carolina Panthers cornerback Bené Benwikere has played a lot of football games over his 25 years, more than he can remember.
But he’ll never forget Sunday’s loss at Atlanta – for all the wrong reasons.
Benwikere was chief among the Panthers’ corners who tried – and failed – to cover Julio Jones, the Pro Bowl wideout who posted one of the best receiving games in NFL history in the Falcons’ 48-33 victory.
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Jones caught 12 passes for 300 yards and scored a 75-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter when he got a clean release against Benwikere, broke a weak tackle attempt by Benwikere and ran away from newly acquired safety Michael Griffin.
Jones’ receiving yards were the sixth most in NFL history and fourth most of the Super Bowl era.
Benwikere gave up 228 of those yards on eight of Jones’ receptions, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I’ve never had anything close to that feeling, to that effect, to that type of game,” Benwikere said Thursday. “But that’s what happens when you go up against a top-caliber offense ... and a receiver and quarterback tandem that’s that good.
“You prepare, you watch film, you do things. But when you don’t take it to that elite level, that level of conditioning, that level of play that they’re at, then you get burned.”
Benwikere wasn’t the only defender who was burned. Jones caught Matt Ryan’s first three passes against James Bradberry before the second-round pick left with a toe injury.
That blew a huge hole in the Panthers’ defensive game plan, which was to have Bradberry shadow Jones most of the game.
And while it certainly didn’t work out as Benwikere hoped, Panthers safety Kurt Coleman says the fact that Benwikere volunteered to take Jones counts for something.
“There’s a lot of times when he didn’t have help. There’s not many corners that are willing to step up to that challenge,” Coleman said. “That says a lot about the kind of character he is, the kind of attitude he brings. Now obviously there’s things he could’ve done better as far as technique and fundamentals. But that was something we watched the film and we grew from.”
Deep in the playbook
Benwikere was critical of his conditioning after the game, and expanded on them Thursday.
Benwikere said the Falcons put some of their other receivers in – and a tight end in one case – and had them run deep routes against Benwikere. Then Jones would return and run another long route – and get a step or two or three on Benwikere.
He expects other teams to try the same thing, beginning Monday with Tampa Bay wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans.
“I kind of put that on film,” Benwikere said. “So obviously they’re going to come out, they’re going to run a deep ball and then they’re going to send another receiver in to run another deep ball. And then they’re going to have their star in and throw to their star.”
Benwikere has started doing extra conditioning this week, running the length of the field at back during the special teams drills and then again after practice.
He wants nothing more than a shot to redeem himself on Monday Night Football against Tampa Bay – but he may find himself coming off the bench.
With Bradberry sidelined with turf toe and looking doubtful for the game, the Panthers have opened the competition at corner, according to head coach Ron Rivera. Benwikere, third-round pick Daryl Worley, nickel back Robert McClain and Teddy Williams, who was inactive the first three games, have all been getting work at outside corner.
“We’re working them this week and we’ll see how it pans out,” Rivera said. “But either way guys are going to play because of the nickel position.”
Benwikere has experience at nickel as well. But he was starting outside last season when he broke his ankle chasing Jones in a Week 14 victory in Charlotte.
Benwikere had a long recovery and missed the start of training camp. When he returned, the hope was he could stabilize a corner group that included three 2016 draft picks.
But that was far from the case last weekend, which Benwikere is hoping to erase with a better performance against the Bucs.
“I’m definitely eager to get back on the field, not only to show outside people. Really to show my teammates and coaches just what I can do,” he said. “It’s a new week. They say in the secondary you have to put everything behind you and have a short memory. So that’s what I’m going to do.”