The ball fluttered through the air and landed in David Mayo’s arms.
Thursday night, midway through the first quarter of the Carolina Panthers’ eventual 17-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mayo got what he called a “gimme.”
No starters played for Carolina in its final exhibition, giving key backups and players on the roster bubble an opportunity to showcase their skills.
Mayo, Luke Keuchly’s primary backup at middle linebacker, is firmly on the roster, and Thursday he again proved why.
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Cornerback Teddy Williams tipped a Steelers pass into the air, and Mayo circled back. It came right to him.
“I went to Teddy and I said thank you,” Mayo said. “I didn’t really have to move.”
The pick may have been effortless, but what the second-year linebacker out of Texas State did with it afterward certainly was not. He barreled down the left sideline, cutting through blockers and juking defenders. Eventually, 27 yards later, a defender dragged him down.
Last year when Keuchly missed the last six games with a concussion, A.J. Klein filled in for him. But this offseason, Klein signed with the division rival New Orleans Saints, and the Panthers didn’t sign anyone else to take his place.
That leaves Mayo as the lead backup behind their All-Pro middle linebacker.
After leading the Panthers in preseason tackles (25) and ranking third in that category for the entire NFL, Mayo has proven he has what it takes to fill in for Kuechly – but don’t expect him to admit that.
“I try not to think about that too much,” Mayo said of replacing Klein as Keuchly’s main backup. “I just try to focus on improving the game that I have.”
Mayo didn’t play much longer after his pick. Instead, he went to the sideline and reenacted the interception with fellow linebacker Thomas Davis. Then Keuchly appeared, high-fived Mayo, and joined the pow-wow.
For the night – and this season – they both have something to celebrate.