Bryan Strickland Senior Writer
CHARLOTTE – Cornerback Josh Thomas‘ name doesn’t appear in the paper trail that describes the Panthers’ pivotal fourth-and-goal stop during Sunday’s victory over the Washington Redskins, but everyone that was on the field knows his role.
And that play typifies the tone that Thomas is helping set throughout the secondary, a much-maligned group that has improved statistically since losing veteran cornerback Chris Gamble to a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4.
“When Chris went down, no one really broke a sweat because everybody has been training to be next in line. That’s the culture around here,” Thomas said. “Opportunities present themselves each week, and it’s our job to execute.”
That’s certainly what Thomas did against the Redskins. Late in the first half, with the Panthers clinging to a 7-3 lead, Washington went for it on fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line. The Redskins rolled dynamic rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III to the right side – to Thomas’ side – intending to overwhelm the Panthers with numbers.
Thomas, however, jammed things up by not allowing running back Evan Royster to create a gap at his expense, holding up the operation long enough for defensive end Charles Johnson to clean up. The Panthers then marched 98 yards to take a 14-3 lead into halftime, and they never looked back.
“I was playing man-to-man coverage, and the big thing the coaches had stressed to me all week was setting the edge,” Thomas said. “Knowing that Robert Griffin is really good with his feet and getting to the edge, I knew it was essential that I stick the running back and give my defense a chance to get there in pursuit.
“I was blessed to make a great play. It felt good to execute.”
The execution level has been high for the secondary since Gamble went down and Captain Munnerlyn took over his starting spot opposite rookie Josh Norman. When Munnerlyn slides to the nickel role in passing situations, Thomas comes in at corner.
After allowing an average of 259 passing yards over their first four games, the Panthers have yielded an average of 189 over the last four – an improvement that will be tested Sunday when Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos visit.
“Our coaches have great faith in our secondary,” Thomas said. “They expect us to make plays when they present themselves. That’s why we’re here, to make our defense great and continue to define our defense.
“Peyton Manning obviously is a great quarterback, a Hall of Famer who has all the hype coming in, but as a defense we’re looking at him as ‘QB.’ We understand who he is, but we’re going to continue doing what we do and be disciplined and sound and consistent.”
It’s been quite a climb for Thomas, a second-year player out of the University of Buffalo who had to fight tooth-and-nail for a roster spot in training camp.
The Dallas Cowboys selected him in the fifth round of the 2011 draft but waived him in the final roster cut-down. The Panthers, despite knowing that Thomas had a fairly serious hamstring injury, claimed him off waivers.
“We had him on the radar, so when Dallas cut him last year, we signed him,” Rivera said. “People wondered why we would bring in a guy that was hurt. There was just something about him.
“Once he got healthy, he started to flash, and then this year in training camp he was tremendous. He’s a very physical corner and a smart kid.”
Thomas played sparingly in the final nine games last year, but he simply kept making plays in training camp this year to earn a roster spot. Now he’s earning more and more playing time.
“Each play is important to me. I cherish it, just like I cherished it when I was given a practice rep in training camp,” Thomas said. “I have a wife, I have a son, and I have a job. My job is the dream that I’m currently living.
“I’m able to feed my family by doing what I love to do, but I would play this game for free.”
It’s that competitive spirit that won the Panthers over and that continues to earn him playing time.
“Football is important to him, and the way he plays reflects that,” Rivera said. “Friday in practice there was a ball thrown in his area, and he jumped up and landed on the ground real hard.
“After practice I went over and told him, ‘J.T., you’ve got to understand it’s Friday. We don’t need you to make those plays on Friday.’ ”
What they do need is for Thomas to keep making those plays on Sunday.