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Carolina Panthers

CJ Henderson learning to forget

CJ Henderson and Evan Cooper

CHARLOTTE – Cornerbacks coach Evan Cooper said he has found that a young defensive back's psyche can be "fragile."

When defending receivers snap after snap, a cornerback can have 65 good plays, but a few mistakes may be the only plays noticed. If you only watch the football, you may not notice how a quarterback was sacked by a defensive end since he held onto the ball too long because of good coverage from the corners.

Cooper said it's his job to keep his group of cornerbacks — filled with young players — level-headed after both successes and failures. So he felt satisfaction in his job as he watched CJ Henderson tape from last Sunday in Atlanta.

"(Henderson's) care factor is so high that it's almost a detriment, sometimes, to him," Cooper said. "He cares so much. … He has to break that wall because the play before, whether it's a great play or a bad play, has no effect on the next play. That's the mindset he has to have, so that's what I've been asking him to do.

"I feel like he finally has said, you know what? Whatever happens, I'm going to play this next play; whether it's a great play or a bad play, I just have to play this next play."

Henderson showed Cooper and his teammates he could rebound from a bad play in Atlanta. He gave up a 47-yard touchdown from Marcus Mariota to Damiere Byrd late in the fourth quarter (which, at the time, looked like the game-clinching play for the Falcons), but then came back to set the Panthers up in the red zone with a critical interception in overtime.

"You learn a lot in practice, but you learn the most in games, and quite honestly, unfortunately, you learn a lot through failure," Cooper said. "That's really all a part of playing that position – football in general, but (in) that position, you kind of scar in those lessons. You don't always learn from the tape or in practice when nobody sees it. You kind of have to go through the fire."

Henderson's journey through the fire in Mercedes-Benz Stadium could've been the critical mistake in the Panthers' eventual loss, as the Falcons went up 31-28 with 2:26 to go in the game because of his error against Byrd.

"He got beat on a play," Cooper said. "And it just so happened that the rest of the coverage was (where) they had their backs turned, and the guy made a couple moves and scored a touchdown. Some of those things happen, and you don't even see those because the quarterback brings it down and goes, but those kinds of things happen all the time. Unfortunately, it just happened to be what everybody thought was a seal-the-deal game-winner."

But PJ Walker's heroic 62-yard touchdown pass to DJ Moore sent the Panthers and Falcons into overtime, offering a chance for redemption. Atlanta won the coin toss, and Mariota went deep to Byrd again early in their first possession, but this time Henderson came up with the ball and brought it back to Atlanta's 20-yard line.

"I think in every young DB's career, there is an a-ha moment," Cooper said. "The best part about that play is it happened after the Byrd play. That Byrd play was probably the only bad play (Henderson) had the entire game. It is what it is; just to see him rebound, to see him go out, and there was no panic about it.

"He was like, 'I'm going to make this play and return it to put us into field goal range to win the game.' And it was one of those things that is kind of what I've been looking for, what I've been asking for. And it was just like that monkey is off our back."

CJ Henderson

Donte Jackson, who had intercepted Mariota on the Falcons' second play from scrimmage, said the cornerbacks lean on each other as they deal with the swings from criticized mistakes to moments of praise.

"It's like a boxer swinging 100 punches and then finally getting that knockout," Jackson said. "That's one of those things that people don't really understand. It gets hard out there and gets lonely out there. … That's just our position. A painting can be abstract, and somebody can be like, 'That sucks.' But that's a million-dollar painting. If you don't get it, you just don't get it. That's just something you sign up for."

Jaycee Horn said Henderson has a reputation for being the kind of player who goes to the ground to break up a pass in a Friday practice, a day the Panthers taper off from more physical work earlier in the week. Henderson runs at full throttle, which has sometimes gotten him in trouble throughout the season. He has been penalized for multiple crucial defensive pass interferences, notably against Cleveland in Week 1 and against San Francisco in Week 5, moving opponents downfield in chunks.

Cooper said he continued to work closely with Henderson on making plays on the ball instead of the receiver, and Henderson came up with clean pass defense on a deep throw from Mariota to Drake London in the fourth quarter against the Falcons.

CJ Henderson

"Sometimes young corners worry about getting beat instead of worrying about just playing technique," Cooper said. "I don't want to call it a panic, but they feel safer putting their hands on the receiver or touching them. Sometimes that gets called. He's been working at it."

Horn said the cornerbacks are taught to employ a certain mindset when the ball is thrown, and it becomes difficult to maintain whenever the receiver beats the corner on a route.

"(It's) having a mindset that when the ball is in the air, you turn into the receiver, so that kind of negates the grabbing and stuff like that," Horn said. "Sometimes it's tough. Sometimes you're beat, and we're taught not to look back when you're beat."

Cooper emphasizes how football is about "stimulus and response," so it's imperative to be in the moment, to react to things as they happen rather than getting lost in details. And then he saw how Henderson bounced back from a low point to a high.

"I know this is not the end of the road, but you just watch it – like he made that play three times in practice; so I'm like, 'OK, you have to make that play,'" Cooper said. "In fact, during the game, I'm like, 'Hey, you have to make this play today.' And he did it. I'm excited to see where it goes from here."

Check out the best photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Bengals this weekend.

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