CHARLOTTE — The Panthers wanted to send Derrick Brown a message.
Not because they were angry with him. But because of what they expect from him, and what he's capable of.
The good news is, it appears to have been received.
The last time the Panthers played, two weeks ago against Miami, the 2020 first-round pick was on the sidelines for the first snap of the game, with backup Bravvion Roy starting in his place. Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said after that game it was directly related to a poor showing the week before against Washington, and that he thought Brown had responded appropriately.
And if anything, the days since that happened have made it clear that the 2020 first-round pick has taken the lesson to heart.
"It was a point. It was made. I understand it," Brown said this week. "I'm a competitive guy, so it pisses me off, but at the same time, I have to give 100 percent because if it was anybody else, the same thing would happen. It definitely got my attention. It got my attention when I walked on the field that Sunday against Washington. I didn't play too hot, and I went home that night; all I could do is sit and watch that film over and over again. That was learning for me.
"It's not about anything particular that went wrong; you've just got to stay focused on the task at hand."
In talking about the temporary move — defensive coordinator Phil Snow said Brown would be back in the starting lineup this week against the Falcons — Brown used the word "focus" a lot. It's clearly been the thing they've stressed to him in their meetings — from Rhule's telling him prior to the Miami game what was coming, through the daily position meetings with line coach Frank Okam — and he gets it.
Okam said Brown has been receptive to what they're talking about, understanding the spirit of the message and the reasoning behind it.
"I want to preface this by saying, one of the things that happens in the league when you're a young defensive lineman, you're still learning how to play, no matter where you're drafted," Okam said. "And that forces you to be focused and be detailed and be right. If you've been the best at something your whole life, you have a tendency to think that's just always how it's going to go. You get to this level; you find what separates the best players from the good players is the ability to focus a little bit longer. Do they have consistent technique, and ability to play with unbelievable effort? That's what separates the good from the great.
"So for Derrick, that's been our challenge for him all year. He has the talent, he can be as good as he wants to be, as good as anybody in the NFL. For us, it was just a re-focus, a re-shift of his mental to say hey, if I focus on the details and if I focus on the things that are important about playing this game at the right level, I can be who I want to be."
Who he wants to be, and what he has shown flashes of being, is a very good NFL defensive tackle, the kind of foundational piece you can build a defense around.
That's what they were expecting when they drafted the 6-foot-5, 320-pounder from Auburn with the seventh overall pick last year. Brown isn't the kind of player who puts up big sack numbers. Still, with his mass and power, he's the kind of player who can disrupt plays from the inside out, and when you have players such as Brian Burns and Haason Reddick on either side, and a guy like Shaq Thompson behind him, that can make a huge difference for a defense. The fact they're second in the league in yards allowed per game stands as evidence that it can work.
But during that Washington game, Brown was not the kind of player they were expecting (not that he was alone).
That landed hard with him, because he takes pride in his work, and knows the expectations they have.
"My coaches hold me to a high standard, but it's not pressure," Brown said. "If I am the guy I said I was during the draft process, that's exactly what I want. I want to be held to a high expectation. So it's not the pressure of being a first-rounder, it's the expectation I have for myself. If someone else's is higher than you have for yourself, there's problem.
"I'm not exactly where I want to be at, but we've still got five good games left to play. I plan on making these the best five."
Okam said he's noticed a different intensity from Brown over the last week since the bye, taking ownership of his own process and applying it more broadly.
"To me, what he's done since then, he's been way more detailed, he's been a guy who has really been focused, and he's challenged himself actually now to hold the room to the standard he wants to accomplish for himself," Okam said.
And make no mistake, that standard is high. Brown was drafted when he was drafted because he has a rare combination of size and power and burst, and his exceptional talent may have contributed, in a way, to his problems against Washington.
"When you've been so talented, you think your talent is going to do it," Okam said. "For him, we're trying to re-focus him and say your talent shows up when you do everything else right. That's what's going to separate you. . . . There aren't many men in this league who can move like him and have as much natural force as he does. I don't want to put a cap on a player, but to me, it's as good as he wants to be.
"What I want every young player to understand is, in this league, it doesn't matter where you're drafted; nothing is handed to you. You have to earn everything. I definitely think it re-shifted his focus, and it definitely gave him a chance to reflect and understand where he is in his personal process."
For Brown, that means being detailed in every moment of practice, from the drill work on pad level — hitting sleds, or coming off the ball through a set of pipes to remind you to stay low — which will help him tap into his physical gifts.
And as he looked back on that Washington tape, as difficult as it was to absorb, he got a reminder of what mattered most as he walked into his home. Seeing his almost 3-year-old son and year-old daughter (she's now walking so the baby gates are back up) charging at him was a temporary reprieve from a rough day at the office, one he keeps in mind as he comes to work each day.
"Oh yeah, when you have a bad game, it's a harsh world," Brown said. "But when I get to go back home and be a daddy, my kids don't care anything about what I do. I get to go home to my fiancé and kids, they're always there for me. My kids, I open the door, and they're running and screaming 'Daddy,' that's all I care about at the end of the day. I can have the worst game of my life, but when I get home, I owe it to them to be who I am to them.
"There are times you get home, yeah you're frustrated, and if I need to talk about it, I'll talk about it with my fiancé or call my dad after my kids go to bed. But to be honest, go in my house and see the kids, it's a relief, and the weight of the world goes off."
But make no mistake, there's still a weight.
The Panthers need the version of Brown they see on tape from the Miami game, the guy who got the message. Snow, who has a wonderful way of summing things up simply, made it clear that Brown's talent is clear, and that they're working to refine it.
"OK, he's a powerful guy inside, so he's got to use that power inside, and his length," Snow said. "And at times this year, he's done it real well and at other times he hasn't. So that's what he's trying to improve on.
"I think Derrick will make really good progress over the next five weeks. So we'll see how he does."
View photos of different cleats for Panthers players that are supporting different causes for Sunday's game, presented by FedEx.