CHARLOTTE – When Cory Littleton injured his ankle early against the Ravens, he knew he couldn't play through it.
Brandon Smith, an eager rookie with room to grow, had spent the first 10 weeks waiting behind the seventh-year linebacker on the depth chart. The Panthers' fourth-round draft pick from Penn State had only played defensive snaps in one other game – eight in a blowout loss to the Bengals – and his opportunity was on the horizon on a cold day at Baltimore.
Littleton said he'd been coaching up the rookie in practice, and he turned to Smith on the sideline at M&T Bank Stadium to give him some encouragement before some of his first big moments.
"Hey man, you hold it down," Littleton told Smith. "Best thing you can do for yourself is take the position. Literally, you have an opportunity. Take it; steal that thing if you can."
For Littleton, giving Smith those words felt like a full-circle moment.
In his second year with the Rams, Littleton had to step in for starter Mark Barron against the Titans while Barron dealt with an injury. He remembered the faith Barron had in him before the 2017 game when the starter told him: "If it was anybody else, I'd be playing. But you got it."
Littleton remembers getting his first sack and first interception in a cold December game against Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota. So paying that encouragement forward to Smith when he couldn't play made sense to him.
Smith put up three total tackles in a career-high 35 percent of the defensive snaps against Baltimore, and he was encouraged by getting meaningful defensive film to review after the game. With Littleton ruled out for a Week 12 game against Denver, Smith is expected to share snaps with Damien Wilson as the Panthers adjust on defense.
"I felt like, after the game, there were definitely some things I could have gotten better with," Smith said. "But it's also just a learning process for me. And that's like the first actual game I'm getting these types of minutes in. Overall, (I) looked at the film and everything like that, and I felt like I was correct that I needed to get better at some things.
"But most and foremost, (it's) just trusting what the coaches have been telling me, not really second-guessing myself."
Littleton said he saw both "rough times" and "promising good highlights" from Smith's first meaningful reps in Baltimore, but that's to be expected from a rookie. He said improving as a defender has everything to do with repetition – the more you see a specific look from an offense, the more prepared you'll be to stop the play.
And the more snaps he gets, the more familiar, locked in, and calm he will feel.
"My man's a rookie, and this was his first opportunity to play a lot of snaps in the game," Littleton said. "The more you get, the more he'll understand. It's kind of tough just being tossed in a game and getting those different variations of blocks and stuff that you aren't necessarily used to. But the more he gets it, the more he's going to get better and better."
Smith said his more experienced teammates also help him channel all of his energy into a more focused place, and watching them throughout the season's first 10 weeks has helped him model their habits.
"(It's) everybody saying, 'Relax and calm down. Slow the game down.' Obviously, it's easier said than done," Smith said. "But still, that type of stuff really makes me look at the way they do things, really seeing them do what they've been preaching to me. That's been helping me move forward in my progression of learning the game."
Littleton said he consistently takes time at practice to ensure Smith understands what he is doing, even though he knows the young rookie is right behind him in the depth chart.
"I had lots of vets that helped me along the way, great dudes, not selfish, none of that," Littleton said. "It's always about putting the team first, and I try to do the same thing."
Smith has also been getting plenty of encouragement from coaches, who see his potential (his combination of size and speed are rare at the position) and want to see him run with his opportunity.
"I just told Brandon he has too much talent and skill set; that's the reason he's out there," interim coach Steve Wilks said. "He needs to let it go and go make plays, which I know he is capable of doing."
Before his first big moments on defense came, Smith had been a consistent contributor on special teams, logging at least 50 percent of special teams snaps in seven of his first 10 games.
"(I'm) just playing my role within the team," Smith said. "It was mostly special teams at first, and then Cory had his thing happen. (I) kind of got elevated to getting those types of reps that everybody dreams of getting. But I'm really just doing whatever is asked and just playing it to the best of my abilities."
Getting your first big opportunity at a sudden moment is not a feeling you forget, which is why Littleton wanted to pay it forward to the rookie behind him at Carolina – just like what had been done for him.
"It's surreal, honestly, because it's an opportunity that you didn't necessarily expect, or you don't know when it's going to come," Littleton said. "But when the opportunity arises, and you make the most of it, it's the best feeling."