Following one of the noisier weeks in his professional career – in which he stressed accountability after being benched Monday night, defended his extracurricular pursuits and promised to be better as a defensive unit – Josh Norman responded by turning down the volume Sunday afternoon.
“He answered the bell, that’s what players do,” left tackle Trent Williams said.
The Redskins cornerback collected an interception and forced a fumble in the first half of the Redskins’ 23-17 victory over the Panthers. He quieted critics, made a statement early on defense and left the field satisfied with a victory against his former squad.
“In this profession you have to continue to play for next Sunday and that’s what he did,” Williams said. “He put his focus on Carolina and you can tell.”
“I know it meant a lot to him,” head coach Jay Gruden said. “I’m happy for Josh.”
It was an award-worthy performance for the player who said earlier this week that he was “born Hollywood,” and it would have been hard to write a better script. That he intercepted his former quarterback Cam Newton, with whom he remains friends, was one thing, but that he responded to a week in which his work-ethic and talent level was questioned was something else entirely.
Norman, who quoted scripture from the podium after the game, was prepared for a redeeming opportunity. The line he read, which he shared with his teammates pregame, “struck a match in me,” he said, “and we came out there as a unit.”
With a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter and an assist from the Redskins’ defensive line, forcing Newton up into the pocket to make an awkward throw downfield, Norman leaped and snagged Newton's throw deep in Redskins territory for his first interception in 20 games. The pick offered a sigh of relief and an immediate rebuttal to his own adversity.
“It’s fitting that we break that little streak against them, the team that I was with,” Norman said. “I guess we’ve got a flare for dramatics somehow…I think I saw Montae [Nicholson], I think he came back on, dropped back on it, but I just saw the ball. And I wouldn’t let God’s angels lift me up and take it from me if they were out there.”
On the next Panthers possession, Norman utilized his best, most refined skill, his “Peanut Punch,” pushing the ball out of wide receiver DJ Moore's grip near the end of a pass play that crossed into Washington’s side of the field. The Panthers had begun to find a rhythm in the passing game, and Norman’s punch stifled it once linebacker Mason Foster recovered the football.
“Soon as the ball came out on the fumble I was like, that was Josh, nobody else but Josh,” linebacker Zach Brown. “When somebody got the tackle he’s automatically going to punch. I don’t know how he do it but, reminds me of Peanut Tillman.”
“It was great man, we needed that from him,” safety D.J. Swearinger Sr. said. “He needed that for himself and we needed to see that as a group. Just stay consistent with it. Anytime we’re making plays, anytime the group is making plays, it’s fun. But when you’re not making plays it’s no fun. So anytime we’re making plays it’s all fun and it’s good to celebrate that as a group.”
Check out these images from after the Redskins' victory over the Panthers.
Those second quarter highlights, and the victory at large, which came from a defensive stand in the red zone, helped soften the sting that lingered from Monday night’s loss to New Orleans. The day after the secondary’s miscues, Norman called a meeting with his defensive backs. The group discussed their communication on and off the field, tightening up as a unit and spending valuable time together.
The early returns on that meeting were, indeed, positive. Though Newton began to pick apart the middle of the field in the second half, the defense made plays when it had to. At the podium, Norman downplayed his individual efforts, even as he smiled at beating Carolina (“Every time we play those guys, it’s always satisfaction if I can do that,” he said). This victory was a team effort.
“I wanted them to know that everything we do, we do it as a unit, as a group,” Norman said. “Regardless of the outside noise, we got to come together, and we got to come together now. This is the time where men are made to be great, and we have the opportunity to be great because we have guys in that room that can do it, and we showed it week in and week out.”
Much like the Redskins’ first five games, Norman’s week has been on a roller-coaster ride that, on Sunday, ended on a high. It will be an even greater task to keep it at that level.
“I’m going to do what we do best,” Norman said. “My teammates know that. As long as they know we have their back, and they have my back, I can stand the test of time. Regardless of what they say, or what someone else says, we going to do us. And we going to do us in a way in which we are going to come out and be better each and every time we step out on the football field…That’s all that matters.”