CHARLOTTE - The best compliment that can be paid to how well Panthers rookie Jonathan Nelson played in the first half of Saturday's victory over Tampa Bay may be that no one really noticed him on the field.
That changed early in the second half – for the better.
Twenty-four hours after the safety moved from the practice squad to the active roster and then suddenly found himself starting, Nelson didn't make any glaring errors in the first half.
Early in the second half, he took advantage of a major mistake by the Buccaneers, intercepting a pass with a helping hand from linebacker James Anderson to jumpstart a 21-0 quarter in Carolina's 48-16 victory.
"James was the guy that made the play for me, tipping the ball, and I was just glad to be at the right spot at the right time," Nelson said. "It was cool."
Joked Anderson: "New man on the field, and I needed to get him to make a play to settle down. So I said, 'Here you go. Merry Christmas.'"
Before the game, it looked like the beleaguered Buccaneers might be the ones receiving a gift. The Panthers were down to three safeties with Charles Godfrey sidelined by a shoulder injury, but just before the game, the situation turned critical when Jordan Pugh told the coaches he wasn't feeling well.
That left starter Sherrod Martin and Nelson as the only healthy safeties.
"Jonathan Nelson stepped up, and the young man got a pick for us and played pretty doggone good," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "It's a testament to what our coaches have been doing. I just think they're doing a tremendous job helping to get our guys ready to play, and that's what we're starting to see. We're starting to see these young guys getting ready to play every time they have an opportunity. It's next man up."
!The St. Louis Rams selected Nelson in the seventh round of the 2011 draft out of Oklahoma University. He didn't survive the final roster cut but was promptly added to the Rams' practice squad, only to be cut after one week.
Two months later he finally found employment again, signing with the Panthers as a practice squad player on Nov. 16. There he remained until Friday, when Carolina promoted him after cornerback Captain Munnerlyn went to injured reserve.
Before Nelson knew it, he was thrust into the starting lineup with only cornerback R.J. Stanford available to relieve him.
"When the day started, I was thinking special teams, and then maybe I'll spell some guys if they're tired or happen to get nicked up," Nelson said. "But when they told me an hour before the game, it actually wasn't too jaw-dropping just because the environment around here as far as the coaches and players, they don't put too much pressure on you.
"It's not like everybody is sweating bullets around here. You have guys like Sherrod and Charles that are like, 'Hey, just go in there and do what you do.' It makes it real simple."
Martin played a pivotal role in Nelson's handling of the situation, acting as a coach on the field from Nelson's perspective.
"He handled it great," Martin said. "We just continued to go over the checks, go over the calls, basically the same approach as when it's me and Charles Godfrey.
"He did a great job. He came in and he was vocal. Everything the coaches asked of him, he did, and he made plays."
When all was said and done, Nelson had an interception and seven tackles – tied for second most on the team – and the Panthers had an emphatic victory to close out the home schedule.
"It was a great day," Nelson said. "I have a bad memory, but I don't think I'll forget this."