Round Two of what plans to be a twice-a-season battle within the battle for years to come will take place Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.
Round One already went to the opponent.
Carolina Panthers rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin announced his presence to the league in Tampa Bay during Week 1’s season opener by capping his six-catch, 92-yard debut with a 26-yard touchdown reception over now-injured cornerback Mike Jenkins.
It proved to be the first of nine touchdowns the rookie out of Florida State would haul in through his first 13 NFL games. If Tampa Bay Buccaneers players and coaches weren’t fully aware of his abilities then, they certainly are now.
“He is a long, angling guy who can make some tough catches down the field,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Thursday afternoon. “Even when DBs are in good position, he finds a way to come down with the football. He’s going to be a good receiver in our league for a while.”
Cornerback Alterraun Verner will likely find himself in situations opposite Benjamin and the fifth-year veteran said he sees a steadily improving young receiver when watching film.
“He’s been going against a lot of good corners throughout the season, so you just see the confidence with him,” Verner said from in front of his locker Thursday. “He’s always been good at catching the ball and things like that and you’ve seen that since the preseason, so he’s just been building on that and you see the confidence level between him and the quarterback taking off.
Verner added that there’s a brashness mixed into that confidence, reflecting a player who knows he belongs.
“It’s just his releases and the way he attacks the ball and his reaction after he makes a play, where it might have been a little more stoic and calm before and now you see him getting in corners’ faces and things like that,” Verner said. “To me, that kind of shows a little more confidence because you’re not afraid to talk a little bit and mix it up. I think you see all that and he’s continuing to make plays, but that’s where I see it, with his demeanor.”
Like the challenge faced with preparing for Detroit’s Calvin Johnson last week, Frazier and head coach Lovie Smith focused their comments Thursday on how to deal with large-statured receivers.
“Other than Johnthan [Banks], we don’t have a guy with that kind of length,” Frazier said of the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin. “Other guys will have to use their quickness and athleticism to find ways to get in position to make plays on the ball because it’s not like they’re not going to throw it to him. We’ll have to find ways to get into position and make plays on the ball.”
At 6-foot-2, Banks is the tallest of Tampa Bay’s six active-roster cornerbacks, followed by Crezdon Butler (6-foot-1), Isaiah Frey (6-foot), Brandon Dixon (5-foot-11), Leonard Johnson (5-foot-10) and Verner (5-foot-10).
Benjamin may be on the bigger end of NFL receivers, but cornerbacks giving up a few inches in height is nothing new and there are multiple ways to make up for that disadvantage, Smith said.
“Most of the corners in the league are under six-feet,” he said. “Most of the time, they have pretty good verticals – they can jump. There comes a point when that can only get you so far. If I’m five inches taller, that should show up eventually.”
To make sure that height difference doesn’t show up too dramatically, Smith said defensive backs need to focus on playing loftier passes at the point of reception and jarring balls loose.
“Eventually [the receiver] comes down, so you’ve got to hit him when he brings the ball in,” Smith said. “They may catch it here [motion his hands above his head] but it eventually comes down when they tuck it away and that’s where you [use your] hand-eye coordination [and] knock it out and then hit him hard when he catches the ball. Those are the ways we’ve always defended big guys.”
Carolina enters Sunday with the NFL’s 21st-ranked passing offense, averaging 225.8 yards per game, but also without regular starting quarterback Cam Newton. Benjamin teams with veteran tight end Greg Olsen as the Panthers’ top receiving threats, and the latter said the rookie’s delivered exactly what was needed when Carolina selected him 28th overall this spring.
“It’s been huge obviously with all the roster turnover in the offseason at that position to have Kelvin come in as our top pick and hit the ground running from the first game and keep that consistency,” Olsen said during this week’s conference call with Tampa Bay media members.
“Obviously he’s a big, physical kind of guy – he brings a ton to the table physically – but his mental approach for a young kid has been tremendous. He studies, he wants to do well, he wants to do everything right, and there’s a reason he’s had success on the field. He works that way, he continues to want to improve and I think for a young rookie receiver, what he’s doing is tremendous. So we’re happy to have him and thankful he’s on our side and the sky is the limit. He’s just going to continue to get better.”