CHARLOTTE – For a rookie, nothing replicates the feeling of that first impact play.
"It's one thing young guys have to have," head coach Ron Rivera said. "That moment where you make a play and say, 'Hey, I can do this. I belong here.'"
Last week, with the Panthers trailing the Giants 23-7 late in the third quarter, rookie defensive end Frank Alexander achieved that breakthrough.
On second-and-10, Alexander shed running back Andre Brown's block and sacked quarterback Eli Manning for a 6-yard loss.
"Getting that first sack – that means everything in the world," Alexander said. "I can come out here and play with these fellas, too."
After a strong training camp and preseason, the fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma worked his way into the Panthers defensive line rotation. With the relentless effort he's consistently displayed, it was only a matter of time before Alexander notched his first sack.
"Frank shows us that motor that you're looking for," Rivera said. "Always going, pushing. He's done some really good things for us. He got his sack on the pressure running through the running back. He just bulled the guy right to the quarterback."
The all-important first career sack and Rivera's ringing endorsement have provided a huge boost of confidence.
"Just hearing that from coach – it reiterates that you are doing a good job and it makes you want to go harder and get better," Alexander said. "It feels good and it makes you want to get those compliments all the time. I just have to produce."
Sacks may be the hallmark stat for defensive ends, but Alexander has been particularly proficient in another category – pass break ups.
Alexander has broken up three passes, good for second league-wide among defensive linemen. He trails only Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who has recorded five PBUs.
"I know you're not going to get a sack every play, but you can do something to get the quarterback out of his comfort zone – get your hands up, get in the throwing lane," Alexander said.
As badly as Alexander wants to increase his sack total, the rookie understands when and where to pull back and take full advantage of his length.
"Once you see the quarterback take his hand off the ball and you're not back there to get a sack, I'm going to make it harder for them to complete the pass," Alexander said. "My thing is just to get my hands up."
Tipping passes is a skill the 6-4, 270-pound defensive end has developed over time. Alexander said his defensive coaches at Oklahoma emphasized batting balls. He worked at it and it showed.
He finished his college career with 14 pass break-ups, tied for the most by a defensive lineman in Oklahoma history.
As a Panther, Alexander has been disrupting offenses when he's gotten his opportunities, and a combination of sound instincts and alert play recognition has helped Alexander carry over his college success to the NFL.
"Sometimes you can kind of tell by the way the offensive line sets you if it's going to be a quick throw. And If the quarterback is doing a three-step drop, nine times out of ten, I'm not going to make the sack," Alexander said.
"So I just get my hands up. Anything to try to throw off that (passing) window."
Spoken like a seasoned veteran.