Secondary shifting toward solutions

CHARLOTTE – As much as anyone on the roster, cornerback Josh Norman knows what it's like to lose a starting spot.

Norman also knows that not all is lost.

In the midst of three consecutive games against teams that rank in the top seven in the NFL in passing offense, the Panthers are trying to figure out the best combination of cornerbacks to use.

Norman was the odd man out not long ago, but now he's solidified his spot while Antoine Cason and Melvin White battle for playing time on the other side heading into Carolina's next game Nov. 10 at the Philadelphia Eagles.

"It's the worst feeling," said Norman, who has started the last three games in which he's been healthy after being relegated to a reserve role for more than a year. "We've all been in that situation where all the blame comes down to you, but you've got to treat it like water on a duck's back – just let it slide off and move on."

The coaching staff planned to start Norman and Cason while working in White at some point during Thursday's game against the New Orleans Saints. That point came at the beginning of the second half and came at the expense of Cason, who started each of the first nine games but isn't assured of that role for the next game.

In the final seconds of the first half, Cason was flagged for pass interference in the end zone, a call that moved the ball from the Panthers' 33-yard line down to the 1. The Saints scored on the next play to take a 14-0 lead in their 28-10 victory that knocked Carolina out of first place in the NFC South.

"A lot of things were going on. It was just kind of crazy," said Cason, who said that communication issues before the snap impacted the play. "And of course it happened at the worst time possible, and I'm a part of it."

The Panthers turned to White, who started the first four games, but head coach Ron Rivera isn't ready to say what the lineup will look like against the Eagles.

"We'll see. We've got a full week ahead of us," Rivera said. "I think Josh Norman has solidified himself, but the other two guys will compete for opportunities."

Finding stability in the secondary has been an issue of late because of inconsistent play but also because of injuries.

Safety Thomas DeCoud missed the Saints game with a hamstring injury, but the bigger issue has been at nickel corner. Rookie Bene Benwikere played well in the role through the first five games before suffering an ankle injury that has sidelined him the last four games. It's too early to tell if he'll be able to return for the Eagles game.

Charles Godfrey took over for Benwikere at first but struggled and was released, so safety Colin Jones and cornerback James Dockery have manned the spot the last two games with some success.

"We've had to shuffle in different combinations at nickel, what we call the nickel/buffalo position. We've played four different guys there this year," Rivera said. "Just trying to develop cohesiveness with that unit has been hard."

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said finding cohesiveness has been a challenge for the secondary as a whole, but the unlikely leader in terms of stability may be Norman.

It seems unlikely because after Norman started his first 12 games as a rookie in 2012, he played sparingly the last month of the season and hardly at all in 2013. But Norman showed signs early this season that his second consecutive strong preseason might have staying power this time around, and that earned him the start in Carolina's victory over the Chicago Bears in Week 5.

Norman missed the next two games because of a concussion and was replaced by White, the second-year player who Norman had replaced. Norman returned to the starting lineup in Week 8 against Seattle and notched his first interception since midway through his rookie season. He played well again versus the Saints.

Norman has faith in himself and the secondary as a whole going forward.

"I had to watch other guys play in front of me. It was hard to take, to swallow that pill," Norman said. "I was really frustrated and depressed, but I leaned on God and he helped me through it. Now I'm here today making plays.

"We're moving in the right direction. If you look at the tape, you'll see that we're doing some really good stuff. At the end of the day, we've just got to refine a couple of things. We've just got to tweak a few things, and we'll be fine."

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