Ross Cockrell, a pro's pro, rises to the occasion with Donte Jackson sidelined


HOUSTON – Ross Cockrell's teammates affectionately call him "pro."


Sunday's game against the Houston Texans explains it all.

"We know we can plug him in and let him go," cornerback Donte Jackson said. "He'll execute and do his job. I knew he was going to deliver."

Jackson, who had two interceptions last week, wasn't available to play due to a groin injury, so Cockrell took his place in the starting lineup.

"I waited for the opportunity," Cockrell said, "and when it arose, I was ready."

Was he ever.

Cockrell was part of a defensive effort that limited quarterback Deshaun Watson to just 160 passing yards in Carolina's 16-10 win.

And it was Cockrell who had a crucial takeaway when Houston tried to get cute late in the first half.

The Texans, perhaps trying to take advantage of a guy making his first start since 2017, tried to fool Cockrell with a trick play in the red zone.

"It was a play that we saw on film," Watson said. "The corner was going to run with the tight end across the field. I threw it to (Hopkins) and I peeked and the corner didn't move."

Nope. Cockrell was having none of it.

On second-and-4 from the Carolina 18-yard line, Watson tossed what looked like a screen pass to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins on the left side. But it was a WR pass. Hopkins stopped and fired a pass across the field expecting running back Carlos Hyde to be wide open out of the backfield.

"My receiver was running a vertical route and they don't normally do that on screens. They usually just block. He ran a route and I just … I just stayed back," Cockrell said. "(Hopkins) launched it."

And Cockrell easily picked off the pass from Hopkins, returning it 37 yards and setting up Carolina's offense with a short field, which they turned into their only touchdown moments before halftime.

"Ross played very well. Very smart football player. They tried to throw back on us and we had talked about it and showed it to the defensive players last week," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Ross was disciplined, stayed home and was able to make the interception. Ross is just one of those guys, definitely 'Johnny on the spot.' He understands. He's a pro."

As the play was developing Cockrell said a moment from last season flashed into his mind.

"The only thing I could think about was Odell (Beckham) and Saquon (Barkley) from last year," Cockrell said, referencing the touchdown pass the former Giants receiver threw against Carolina, a play Rivera showed the team during the week of prep. "I don't know if it was the same exact play, but that was in my head."

Cockrell wasn't on the field for that play against the Giants, of course. He wasn't on the field at all last season.

The veteran cornerback suffered a horrific leg injury during last year's training camp. He lost his entire season before it started.

But after a long year of rehabilitation, Cockrell proved he could be a contributor this summer. In addition to working at corner, he took reps at safety. Last week in Arizona he was out there for every defensive snap at nickel. This week he came through with an interception and an additional pass breakup at the goal in a starting role outside.

Wherever the Panthers need him, Cockrell is ready and waiting.

And after trying year both physically and emotionally, everyone in that visitors' locker room was overjoyed to see him shine.

"I really prayed for this. I prayed hard, I worked hard," Cockrell said, who pointed up to the sky with both hands after celebrating his interception with elated teammates. "The support I got from the team to come back and allow me the opportunity to compete – I'm just very thankful."

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