Josh Norman must be stellar when it counts

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson unleashed a long pass over the middle intended for Toney Clemons. Cornerback Josh Norman extended his long, left arm out as far as he could and snagged the overthrown ball from the air while rolling to the ground.

It was a spectacular play.

It was a play we've seen Norman make many times before -- in practice and preseason games.

In regular-season games, not so much.

Norman might be the greatest practice and preseason cornerback in Carolina history. He led the NFL in preseason interceptions last season with four, including one returned for a touchdown. He had four interceptions in one day during a 2012 training camp practice.

When it counts, Norman has one interception in two seasons.

That's why coach Ron Rivera said he was "reluctant" to get excited about Norman's performance during organized team activities. You can't blame him.

"What we need [to] do is we need to be able to transfer that onto the football field during a game situation when we have the pads on," Rivera said Wednesday when asked about Norman's practice interception. "But it most certainly shows he has that ability."

Norman showed so much ability as a fifth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina in 2012 that he started the first 12 games as a rookie. Then came a mistake-riddled game against the Kansas City Chiefs in which he was benched.

He didn't start the rest of the season.

Despite his spectacular preseason in 2013, Norman played in only seven games with no starts. He had a total of four tackles after having 73 the year before. He was inactive about as much as he was active.

But the potential is there. On the final day of the 2013 training camp in Spartanburg, Norman made a play similar to the one he had on Wednesday on a pass to James Shaw. As the two were headed for the left, front corner of the end zone, Norman went up with his right hand in an awkward, twisting motion and brought the ball to his chest as he hit the ground.

That play came the week after Norman had a pair of interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, against the Chicago Bears in the preseason opener.

It again was spectacular.

But Norman's aggressiveness that allows him to make interceptions also gets him in trouble. He sometimes jumps coverage and lets receivers get behind him. He misses tackles he shouldn't.

Undrafted rookie Melvin White became the starter last season because he kept the plays in front of him for the most part. His interception and 8-yard return for a touchdown in the regular-season finale with the Panthers trailing Atlanta 10-0 sparked the comeback for a 21-20 victory that secured the NFC South title.

The competition at cornerback becomes even greater once training camp opens on July 24 and Charles Godfrey, rehabbing from an Achilles injury, begins in earnest his transition from safety to cornerback. Free agent Antoine Cason also has looked solid in practice.

If Norman can translate what he's done in practice and preseason games to the field for regular-season games, that will be a plus for a defense replacing three-fourths of its starting secondary from 2013.

He's a tall (6-foot) cover corner that can make big plays.

The Panthers just need him to be spectacular on game day.