Josh Norman of the Carolina Panthers has statistically been the NFL’s best cover cornerback this season.
But Norman, in his fourth season, was reduced to the role of spectator in the Panthers’ first meeting with Seattle, in October.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw 30 passes in the Panthers’ 27-23 victory in Week 6, but only two were in Norman’s direction.
Both were behind-the-line throws, to tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Doug Baldwin. Norman made the tackles on both plays for a net of negative-2 yards.
Neither Norman nor his teammates are sure whether Wilson will test Norman on Sunday at 1:05 p.m. in the NFC divisional-round game at Bank of America Stadium.
But if the Seahawks (11-6) choose to stay away from Norman again, Wilson will go after a pair of corners who were out of football the last time these teams met.
Season-ending injuries to Bené Benwikere and Charles Tillman brought nickel corner Cortland Finnegan out of retirement and landed Robert McClain in Charlotte with a job after he worked out for 10 teams during the season.
McClain, a former Falcons starter, watched film of the earlier Seahawks game and saw Wilson avoid Norman’s side of the field as if it were quarantined.
“That’s going to happen when you have a high-caliber corner like Josh. Any mistake they make he’s going to take advantage of it,” McClain said. “So when the ball’s not thrown his way, if it’s thrown my direction I have to do the same thing – take advantage of the quarterback mistakes. Make good breaks on the ball and be able to take the ball away from the offense.”
Wilson said during a conference call with Charlotte media this week he wasn’t necessarily trying to stay away from Norman in the October game. But Seahawks coach Pete Carroll painted a different picture a few hours later.
“He had started off so fast and looked so good early in the season, we just didn’t work his way much,” Carroll said. “We think he’s a really good player.”
Norman, who made his first Pro Bowl this season, had four interceptions in the Panthers’ first four games, including two he returned for touchdowns. After a Week 5 bye, the Panthers (15-1) headed to Seattle, where Norman barely broke a sweat.
“I would like everybody to throw my way,” Norman said. “It makes the game more exciting. It makes it fun.”
Opposing quarterbacks had a league-low passer rating of 54.0 this season when targeting Norman, according to Pro Football Focus. He said he had “no idea” how Wilson will approach this game.
“I’m just going to play whatever the call’s being called. If they want to try me then so be it,” Norman said. “But I can’t dictate what they do over there on the offense.”
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said if the Seahawks decide to limit their passing game to half of the field, that’s their prerogative.
“I know what Josh does for us. He’s been a good football player for us,” McDermott said. “If they want to throw the ball or look away from Josh, it could cut the field in half and then we can focus on that half of the field.”
McDermott said he’s confident in McClain and Finnegan, adding that both have been diligent in their work habits since arriving late in the season.
McClain has been in this position before – facing Wilson in a highly anticipated divisional-round matchup. McClain was Atlanta’s nickel three years ago when the Falcons beat Seattle 30-28 at the Georgia Dome.
Wilson, then a rookie, completed 24 of 36 passes for 385 yards throwing to a receiving corps that included wideouts Sidney Rice and Golden Tate and tight end Zach Miller. All those players are gone, replaced by Jermaine Kearse, Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett and tight end Luke Willson.
McClain says he and Norman will not lock up with one receiver Sunday, but will face all of them at some point depending on the coverage. McClain has heard the critics who say Wilson should pick on McClain rather than challenge Norman.
McClain’s response: “Go out there and play football and go get that ball. Show them the reason why I’m out there playing, why I’m out there competing and why I’m going to be trying to make plays on the ball.”
McClain had seven tackles and an interception against Tampa Bay in Week 17 after Tillman left in the second half with a torn ACL. The 5-9, 195-pound McClain will give up 4 inches to Kearse (6-1, 209), but matches up better size-wise with Lockett (5-10, 182).
Baldwin, the Seahawks’ leading receiver, lines up in the slot about 80 percent of the time. That means Finnegan will be the primary defender on a 1,000-yard receiver who tied for the league lead with 14 touchdowns.
Finnegan, 31, a 10-year veteran who spent his first six seasons with Tennessee, said shutting out Baldwin is not the goal.
“I think you just try to slow him down. In that offense he’s going to make his plays. You just try to limit his big gains,” Finnegan said. “His run after the catch is where he really thrives. He can make you miss, too. Their offense, it goes when he goes. So trying to slow him down is a good thing and a big thing for us.”
Finnegan says Baldwin, who grew up in Finnegan’s hometown of Pensacola, Fla., is particularly adept at getting open when Wilson scrambles.
“He’s got great balance and great hands,” Finnegan said. “He just kind of knows when Russell starts to scramble ... and they kind of work that to perfection.”
Finnegan was semi-retired and working out in Nashville, Tenn., when the Panthers called in November looking for a corner. He and McClain were part of the same workout for the Panthers after Tillman initially injured his knee against the Titans.
Now Finnegan and McClain have been thrust into big roles in the Panthers’ biggest game of the season. Finnegan says he understands why analysts are saying he and McClain will be targeted early and often by Wilson.
“Rightfully so. I get it,” he said. “Just have to go out there and play football.”