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Jaycee Horn led by "natural instinct" 

Jaycee Horn

CHARLOTTE – Jaycee Horn swooped in to intercept Geno Smith on the Seahawks' first offensive play, leaving Seattle head coach Pete Carroll scrunching his nose on the sideline.

The TV broadcast caught the longtime coach with his hands on his hips asking, "What was that?"

That would have been Horn recognizing Seattle's formation and playing off the route concept perfectly. And it was also a show of instinct coming from a 23-year-old cornerback in his second year (and first full season, since he was injured as a rookie) of NFL football.

Horn said he expected a "quick" start for Smith and star receivers Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. Horn started the play just behind Metcalf in coverage near the sideline and recognized a sprint-out pass would be going Lockett's direction, behind him to the flat.

"(Smith) was looking behind me," Horn said. "So I figured something. It was like a high-low concept, so I just ran straight back. I guess he never saw me. He just threw it."

Horn sprinted from the side and leaped in front of Smith's pass, grabbing the pick on the quarterback's first attempt of the day. Horn brought the ball 31 yards to the Seattle 13-yard line and could've made it to the end zone had he not slipped on the turf at Lumen Field. And it wasn't just that play. Horn didn't allow Metcalf much room, allowing him three receptions for 49 yards on six targets when he was shadowing him Sunday.

Defensive coordinator Al Holcomb and interim coach Steve Wilks, who coached defensive backs before taking over after Week 5, agreed that Horn's instincts led the way on his tone-setting play in Seattle.

"A lot of instincts with him," Wilks said. "Particularly, you've got to understand it was sprint-out. Whenever you get sprint-out, they're decreasing pretty much half the field. You saw the safety pushing over the top. He worked underneath… then fell off in the coverage and made a great play."

Jaycee Horn

Where does that kind of football IQ come from? There are a few places. First, his father, Joe Horn, was a four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver in the early 2000s, which Wilks said gave Jaycee Horn a "DNA and pedigree" in the league.

"It really starts with his makeup of who he is as a person," Wilks said. "He puts a lot of time and effort into his craft. He takes pride in all the details and things that I talk about all the time. You can see it in his performance. … He understands what it takes to be successful at this level and at a high standard. I love the way he's playing right now."

Horn said he could give some credit to the Madden NFL video game series, which he said he has played since childhood. In a way, Horn has been preparing for moments in the league since he was in elementary school.

"I've always been pretty good at Madden," Horn said. "I've always understood coverages since I was probably 10 or 11, just from playing the game. Obviously, throughout high school and college, it developed, but I always knew the base coverage rules. I don't know if that has anything to do with it or not, kind of just knowing how football works."

Holcomb said Horn is a "student of the game" who continues to improve since he was taken in the first round of the 2021 draft. This year is Horn's second in the league, but it is his first fully healthy season, given he missed almost his entire rookie year after a broken foot in Week 3.

And even though he's less experienced regarding the raw number of NFL snaps, Horn carries himself with a veteran-like presence in the locker room and meetings.

"He's constantly watching film, in the meetings, outside the building," Holcomb said. "And when he comes in here on a Wednesday, he's probably already watched a few games on his own. He can already tell you the splits and what everyone's doing."

But as much as he prepared for Smith, Metcalf, Lockett, and Seattle's offense, Horn said nothing specific popped off from his film study in that opening interception. He just naturally knew how to defend the play.

"A lot of offenses run that concept," Horn said. "I didn't really see it on film and think I was going to make the play or bait him. It was kind of just natural instinct."

View photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers prepare to take on the Steelers.

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