EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – For the first time since suffering his third major knee injury in less than two years, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis was back in action Sunday night.
Davis, however, didn't simply return to the field of play.
Davis returned to the field and made plays.
"I didn't want to come in and just be another guy running around and just showing everybody that I was OK to run around," said Davis, whose most recent knee injury occurred Week 2 of last season. "I wanted to go out there and contribute, make plays.
"It was a great feeling – preseason, regular season, whatever – to be back knowing everything I've been through."
Davis, who has played in two regular season games since first tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in right knee on Nov. 8, 2009, had seen his third comeback slowed by a calf injury to the same leg.
He certainly didn't look slow to New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in the Panthers' 17-12 preseason victory. Davis came in on third downs as a part of the defense's nickel package on the Jets' first four drives and was responsible for ending the final three.
First, Davis lined up near the line of scrimmage and sacked Sanchez for an 8-yard loss.
Next, he dropped into pass coverage and dove to knock away a Sanchez pass to the front corner of the end zone intended for tight end Josh Baker.
And finally, Davis dropped into coverage but then reversed field and tracked down Sanchez on a scramble that could have resulted in a touchdown if not for Davis.
"The coaches did a great job of utilizing me in different situations. It's a way to work myself back into playing defense," Davis said. "You put so much work into preparing after a third ACL, and once you go out there and make a play, it's like a burden is lifted."
After the sack that started his run of game-changing plays, Davis said the excitement shown by his teammates felt even better than the sack itself. When he trotted off the field, head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion was among the first to get to him, greeting him with a congratulatory hand slap.
"I was just happy for him," Vermillion said. "My heart is on his side. We're all on his side - all the doctors, all the trainers.
"He's been through an awful lot, some dark days, a lot of hard days. For him to be able to get out there and make plays, I feel so good for him."
Anyone who doubts Davis' determination to not just play again but to play well needs to hear his breakdown of the pass break-up that followed, when he lunged in front of a sliding receiver to short-circuit a possible touchdown.
"I'm going to call that a bad play because I actually got my hand on the ball," Davis said. "Defensively, we feel like if we get our hands on the ball, we need to come away with it."
The Panthers, too, have high expectations for Davis going forward.
"He did a lot of good things for us," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "We have to keep him healthy, keep him on the football field, because he's a huge part of what we want to do."