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Gamble returns to form

Posted Oct 28, 2011

CHARLOTTE – After Panthers practice finished Thursday, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott gathered his defensive backs in a circle, tossed them two footballs, and had them play a big-boy version of hot potato.

When a player dropped a ball, he was eliminated. When a player threw a ball to a player that already had one, he was eliminated. To survive, players had to have their head on a swivel.

"Hey, Coach, you have a name for that drill?"

"Not really," he said. "It's the 'get interceptions' drill."

Cornerback Chris Gamble didn't win the competition on this day, but Gamble is the latest to get the interceptions that McDermott is seeking – a historic interception at that.

Last Sunday, Gamble sealed the Panthers' victory over the Washington Redskins with his 25th career interception, tying Eric Davis' franchise record.

"It felt good," Gamble said. "We were in man-to-man coverage. I stayed on top, where I could see the quarterback and the receiver. Then when I saw the ball in the air, I just attacked to the ball and tried to return it.

"I'm my biggest critic, and I felt like I should have gotten this last year. Now that I have it, I'm going to try to keep it going, but it felt good getting that first one."

Gamble moved within one interception of matching Davis with a pick against the New England Patriots on Dec. 13, 2009. That was Gamble's third consecutive game with an interception, but from there he went 19 games in which he played without an interception, by far the longest drought of his NFL career.

Before that, Gamble's longest drought had been 10 games. He had intercepted at least one pass in each of his first six NFL seasons before being shut out in 2010.

"I had my ups and downs last year, but I feel good this year," said Gamble, who dealt with a personal issue as well as injury issues during last year's struggles. "I'm focused. I was focused last year, but this is a fresh start."

The fresh start began with a new coaching staff that includes McDermott as well as former NFL linebacker Ron Rivera as head coach.

"They've brought a lot of excitement and energy," Gamble said. "Coach McDermott, he's a good, young coordinator who is always on us about getting to the ball. Coach Rivera was a defensive player, so he knows the situation. It feels good having those two guys."

There's also a familiar face in a new position. Ron Meeks, now Gamble's position coach, was Carolina's defensive coordinator in 2010.

"Meeks is a good coach," Gamble said. "He's always talking about technique, and that has helped me because I've never really been big on technique. I try to take what he says about technique each and every day and apply it on the field."

Meeks is now in a better position to be hands-on with Gamble every day, and it's clearly paying dividends.

"In my role as secondary coach, I'm trying to give him some little pointers, trying to help him plan for games and for different receivers," Meeks said. "But he's done a good job himself of being more competitive, of having a sense of urgency and putting himself in a position to make plays. I like what I'm seeing.

"He's a player with a lot of talent, and he's dedicated himself to improving on some of the little things. Each play, you have to have a plan. He's finishing plays better. He has a sense of urgency, and he's finishing plays in a better position."

Gamble turned the page on last season and set the tone for this season in the opener at Arizona. The new coaching staff told Gamble in the preseason that they were going to play more man-to-man coverage and that they were going to rely on him to contain the opposition's top threat. Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald had averaged 113.9 receiving yards in seven previous games against the Panthers, but he needed a 34-yard catch late just to finish with three catches for 62 yards.

"That was a big start," Gamble said. "With Larry, I felt like I could stick that guy. I had been going against him ever since we came out the same year, so I know how he comes off the ball, things like that. I just wanted to show what I could do and then keep it up, be consistent.

"I was looking forward to playing the best receiver, and I didn't want to let my coaches or teammates down. I wanted to do my best job."

Gamble has continued to do his job and got the ultimate prize Sunday with an interception. Now the next time he picks off a pass, he'll stand alone as the Panthers' all-time leader.

"He's just done an outstanding job," McDermott said. "He and Coach Meeks have a special relationship; they work well together. He's responded and really bought into what we're trying to do.

"What an accomplishment for him to tie the record. I think there's more big things to come from Chris."