The most physical tackling performance of Carolina safety Kurt Coleman’s three-year tenure with the Panthers began last week with a lackadaisical missed tackle.
In the first quarter of Carolina’s 23-3 win at San Francisco, Coleman had a clear shot at running back Carlos Hyde ... and whiffed.
“I was mad at myself because I didn’t run through. I told myself, ‘All right, every time you get a chance you just need to run,’” Coleman said. “I was just trying to be a little more patient than I should have been. I should have just been aggressive.”
Coleman didn’t miss a tackle the rest of the game – and delivered big hits on half of his six solo stops.
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Aggression and effort have never been an issue for the undersized Coleman, who was the 244th player taken in the 2010 draft despite being a three-year starter and an all-conference player at Ohio State.
Coleman was discarded by three other teams before landing with Carolina as an under-the-radar free agent in 2015. He quickly became a starter and a leader on the Panthers’ Super Bowl team, picking off seven passes and making 103 tackles to earn a contract extension before last season.
Coleman’s character and work habits have not gone unnoticed. His teammates chose him as one of the six season captains last week.
“He’s not the biggest guy. He’s probably 5-10, 205. But he’s going to give you everything he’s got each and every play,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said.
“He’s a guy that really worked from the bottom to the top. He grinded his way. Being on three different teams – it seemed like nobody wanted him – to making a home in Carolina. Now he’s a captain.”
After coming up empty against Hyde, Coleman went the sidelines in between series in a foul mood.
“I think Kurt was a little tweaked at himself. It wasn’t Kurt’s responsibility, but Kurt had a chance to make that play,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “And after that, his game just took off. It was one of those (performances) that most certainly was game-ball worthy, if he’d had a big play or two. He played very strong and tackled very well.”
Coleman didn’t get a game ball, but he did get another shot at Hyde – a fellow Buckeye – later in the first quarter.
Hyde broke through the first level of the Panthers’ defense and was running full speed when Coleman leveled him after an 18-yard pickup. Coleman said he bounced to his feet afterward thinking, “I got the juice.”
That juice flowed to his defensive teammates when Coleman had another good shot on Hyde along the sideline in the second quarter, then dropped tight end George Kittle for no gain on a third-down pass.
Munnerlyn said Coleman’s physicality set the tone for the rest of the defense.
“He was coming down on open-field tackles on Carlos Hyde and making the tackle like, bam! We were like, whoa! I’m like, that’s what’s up,” Munnerlyn said. “He definitely made some big-time stops for us. He’s going to hit you, man. He’s going to bring everything he’s got, the whole 205 pounds.”
The Panthers’ defensive backs weren’t the only ones impressed with Coleman’s open-field tackles.
After Coleman’s fourth-quarter stop on Kittle, color analyst Chris Spielman (another Buckeye) raved about Coleman during the Fox broadcast.
“Whatever Kurt lacks in speed, he makes up in smarts and toughness. I don’t care what his timed speed is because he plays fast,” Spielman said. “All he does is make plays and he rarely misses a tackle. And he comes with bad intentions when he hits you.”
Coleman said a game official approached him after one of his tackles and asked if he was letting the 49ers players make catches just so he could hit them.
“I was like, ‘That’s not the object,’” Coleman said, laughing. “But any time I get a chance I’ve got to bring (it).”
Bigger than his measurables
Coleman weighed in at 192 pounds at the 2010 combine, and his pre-draft bio on NFL.com described him as a “tough, competitive guy who plays bigger than his listed measurables.”
With his small frame and good-not-great 40-yard dash time (4.52 seconds), Coleman fell to the bottom of the seventh round before the Eagles drafted him. He became a starter during his second season in Philadelphia, but says Eagles general manager Howie Roseman once told him safeties weighing less than 200 wouldn’t have a long NFL shelf life.
But Rivera says the proliferation of three-receiver sets has slimmed down the safety position.
“You have to have a safety that’s got some underneath quickness because for the most part he’s going to end up lining up inside on the extra receiver,” Rivera said. “And he’s got to be able to handle that in certain situations.”
The Panthers use their safeties interchangeably, and neither would be considered big.
Coleman is listed at 5-11 and 208 pounds, but says he’s closer to 202 to 204. Mike Adams, the other starting safety, is 5-11, 205.
The average height and weight of the six safeties selected to the Pro Bowl last season was 6-foot and 212 pounds.
“You’re not finding many 6-3, 210-pound, 215-pound safeties. The game has changed,” Coleman said. “You need a safety that’s versatile – can go down in the box, can play off (coverage), can play the slot, play the tight end. You’ve got to have a lot of guys that can do that.”
Coleman’s versatility has been big for the Panthers. His 11 interceptions are the most in the NFC over the past two years, and he was third on the team in tackles in 2015 and 2016.
Rivera said the only time he gets a little nervous with Coleman in coverage is when he’s lined up against a big tight end such as Seattle’s Jimmy Graham.
But no matter how many inches or pounds he might be giving up, Coleman tries to make his presence known.
“I try to deliver a blow. You look at a lot of safeties and sometimes they like to go for knees. But I like to – not head-hunt – but I like you to feel the punch I’m bringing, and vice versa. That’s just how I play the game,” Coleman said.
“And I always like to tell myself I’m 7-foot-5, 300 pounds. When I’m on the field, I feel like a giant.”
From roster cut to ‘C’
Coleman’s time in Philly overlapped one season with Sean McDermott, the former Eagles and Panthers defensive coordinator in his first year as head coach for the Buffalo Bills, who face the Panthers on Sunday.
McDermott also was an undersized safety (at William & Mary, where he played with Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin), and liked Coleman’s tenacity and makeup. When Coleman became a free agent in 2015 (after being cut in training camp by Minnesota and a one-year stint in Kansas City), the Panthers signed him to a two-year contract.
The Panthers have since tacked on three more years to Coleman’s deal. And last week he became a captain for the first time, taking the spot formerly held by defensive end Charles Johnson.
Coleman was instrumental in the development of cornerbacks Daryl Worley and James Bradberry as rookies last season. Among other things, Coleman encouraged the young corners to study more film.
“(As) a younger guy, you’re up here so much with extra meetings and stuff you just want to go home,” Bradberry said. “But he would sit us down and watch extra film with us. So it really helped us prepare for the game.”
Panthers safety Colin Jones said Coleman has been a guiding force and a strong voice in the defensive backs room since he arrived, and would serve as a bridge between players and the defensive coaches.
Coleman said he told his dad he was going to lead whether he had the ‘C’ on his jersey or not.
“I want to be able to leave a legacy for others and I want to be able to push others to be better, as they push me,” he said.
It just so happened in his first game as a captain – after an early miss – Coleman was the one doing all the pushing.