When the Carolina Panthers’ schedule came out in the spring, Josh Norman looked at it and immediately thought of the receiver he’d likely be going against each week.
He may not have actually circled Nov. 26 on his calendar, but he knew who he’d be meeting on Thanksgiving.
Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant may offer the stiffest test so far for Norman, widely considered one of the NFL’s best corners.
“I don’t think anything in life is worth having unless you work for it,” Norman said. “Dez … he can do a little bit of everything, so I’m excited for that matchup. He’s going to test my abilities and I’ll show it back to him and we’ll see where we end up at the end of those four quarters.”
Despite low numbers this year because of injury, Bryant has been one of the most productive and elite pass-catchers in the NFL since joining the league in 2010. He has 5,678 receiving yards and 58 touchdowns in his career, the latter being the second-most in the league since 2010.
At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Bryant has the size to out-muscle the usually-smaller defensive back and the speed to run away from them.
That blend has allowed him to have three consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus yards, even though he may miss a fourth-straight season in 2015.
Bryant suffered a foot injury in Week 1 and sat out six weeks before returning with mixed success in the past four weeks.
Even though Bryant has had just one 100-plus receiving yard game this year and the lowest yards per reception total (12.1) of his career, he still presents a unique challenge for defenses.
“He is a difficult guy for defenses to guard. It’s as simple as that,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Often times when he breaks the huddle, since he came into this league, he’s been a guy that defenses give extra attention to. They don’t like to leave him out there by himself very much. And usually when they do he can be very productive for us.”
This season, Norman has traditionally followed the opponent’s top receiver when that opponent has an elite player at that position. In some games – such as Jacksonville and Seattle – he’s played mostly in zone because the opponent didn’t have a top target.
There’s no doubt Norman will follow Bryant wherever he lines up, but the Panthers would be foolhardy to leave him on an island the entire game. The Cowboys should expect either safety Roman Harper or Kurt Coleman to shade to Bryant’s side of the field on at least a handful of passing plays.
“I know I’m taken care of,” Norman said. “If I’m beat or not beat, they’ll be there to help. And if not, hey we just do J. No type of things. Take the ball if we can. Make a play out of nowhere. We’re just going to try to do something to create some havoc and make some turnovers.”
Norman hasn’t created a turnover since getting his fourth interception against Tampa Bay in Week 4, but that’s because he hasn’t had many opportunities. Russell Wilson didn’t throw his way at all, and Sam Bradford and Andrew Luck hardly tested him, too.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo knows about Norman but won’t shy away from his top target this week.
“I don’t necessarily believe in not ever throwing at someone,” Romo said. “I think what you do is you try and look at his skill set and, for me you want to see what they’re really good at and you want to try and stay away from those things and then some of the stuff you find hopefully you can take advantage of.
“You try and put yourself in situations where you can gain an advantage. You look at a lot of things, but you have to be careful. He’s a dynamic player who’s played well for them.”