On a dark, dreary Saturday that featured intermittent rain and a 30-minute lightning delay, the Panthers saw a glimpse of light from an unlikely source in their secondary.
It’s been a weird offseason for third-year cornerback Bene’ Benwikere, who spent the bulk of it in the training room getting his broken left ankle back in working order. While Benwikere rehabbed, there were significant comings (three drafted rookies) and goings (Josh Norman and two other veterans) at his position.
Benwikere somehow felt like the forgotten man, caught between the team’s cornerbacks past and future. On Saturday he reminded the team’s fans and decision-makers that he intends to play a big part in impacting the Panthers’ present.
Benwikere, who started at nickel back, dodged the raindrops to come up with a sack and an interception during the first half of the Panthers’ 26-16 victory against Tennessee at Nissan Stadium.
This was the second of four mostly meaningless exhibitions for the defending NFC-champion Panthers. Try telling that to Benwikere, who celebrated his first-quarter pick of Marcus Mariota by plopping down on the bench and exhaling eight months worth of frustrations.
“I literally went to the sideline, sat down and said, ‘Finally, I just got one,’” Benwikere said. “Really just hoping to get more and hope that gives me some momentum.”
On Tennessee’s first possession, Mariota drove the Titans inside the Carolina 30 when he tried to float a pass to former Falcons wideout Harry Douglas on second-and-5.
But Benwikere read the play, broke back and stretched to pick off Mariota’s pass. Benwikere shook off a facemask by Titans wideout Andre Johnson and gained 9 yards on the return.
“I stayed inside and read his eyes,” Benwikere said. “Once I read his eyes, I was able to come back and make the play.”
Later in the first half Benwikere had a heads-up play to sack Titans backup quarterback Matt Cassel for a loss of 8.
Benwikere followed Tennessee’s slot receiver in motion to the opposite side of the field, where he passed the receiver off to the outside corner and was responsible for the Titans’ tight end. When the tight end stayed in to block, Benwikere darted into the backfield to drop Cassel.
“It’s a big boost,” Benwikere said. “Just being able to come back and prove to the coaches that I still have it and I can still make plays.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera noticed.
“Reading the quarterback’s eyes, understanding where the route’s coming to and beating a guy to the ball -- that’s a veteran move,” Rivera said. “That’s what we saw coming out of college and we’ve seen him do that that last couple years for us.”
Benwikere began the preseason on the physically unable to perform list and still looks like he’s running with a little hitch in his stride. He has a six-inch scar on the outside of his left leg, which he broke while chasing Julio Jones across Bank of America Stadium last December.
He was sidelined for the playoffs and for Super Bowl 50, played in the shadow of San Jose State, where Benwikere went to school.
Benwikere was in his hometown of Los Angeles during the weekend of the draft, when the Panthers took corners with three successive picks to reload after parting ways with Norman, Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan.
Despite the arrival of the so-called Three Amigos, Benwikere says he never felt like he’d been kicked to the curb.
“They never really put me out or anything like that. So there was never any feeling of that,” he said. “Then when the new guys came in, even though they got their spots, it wasn’t something to sulk in. It was something to see how I could get them better.
“Because I remember my rookie bumps and my rookie bruises. So if we can eliminate those, the football team will be better, faster.”
While Benwikere made the most of the soggy day, it was a mixed bag for the Panthers’ rookie corners.
James Bradberry, the second-round pick from Samford, wasn’t really tested. Third-rounder Daryl Worley allowed wideout Tajae Sharpe to catch several passes in front of him, but didn’t let Sharpe -- or anyone else -- get behind him.
Nickel corner Zack Sanchez had Douglas slide between him and strong safety Kurt Coleman for a 23-yard touchdown toss from Mariota.
Sanchez came back to intercept a Cassel pass that linebacker A.J. Klein tipped. Sanchez was flying around on the wet turf after a 30-minute lightning delay and nearly got his hands on a couple of other passes.
But it was Benwikere who shined on the cloudy afternoon in Nashville, drawing a crowd of reporters afterward for the first time since his injury. The public might have overlooked Benwikere for a bit, but free safety Tre Boston said his teammates didn’t.
“He was hurt going into the season so of course his name wasn’t dropped too often. And upstairs they’re going to do their evaluations of him being hurt a couple years in a row,” Boston said. “In that moment and scenario, you can lose a guy like Bene’.”
“But on this team we always knew what we had in him,” Boston added. “To see him out there today making the plays, so people can get his name back in their mouth, it feels amazing because I know this is one of the guys we need to be great in our secondary.”