With starting free safety Charles Godfrey injured against one of the NFL's most potent passing attacks, the Panthers defense figured to struggle Sunday at Arizona. Instead the unit forced six turnovers, keying a 34-21 victory over the heavily favored Cardinals.
Rookie Sherrod Martin accounted for two of those turnovers filling in for Godfrey. Making his first NFL start, Martin cleanly picked off a Kurt Warner overthrow in the second quarter to stop one drive. He intercepted another Warner again in the fourth quarter when he caught a deflected pass caused by a Chris Gamble hit.
CSR spoke to Martin after practice Wednesday about his solid first start and how his rookie season is unfolding...
The 6-foot-1, 198-pound Troy graduate was the team's second-round draft pick in April. A native of rural Griffin, Ga., he played both corner and safety in college. The Panthers planned to play him at corner, but shifted him to safety late in the preseason. That's the position he played as a senior at Troy last season, when he intercepted three passes in one quarter.
Martin, who turned 25 in October, has overcome several injuries to get to the NFL. He underwent two shoulder surgeries and broke multiple fingers in college, leading NFL Network host Rich Eisen to say during the Scouting Combine: "He looks like the guy from Operation." Martin then suffered a knee bruise that limited him in the preseason.
But Martin was in the lineup Sunday. Besides the interceptions, he has also tallied 8 tackles and 2 passes defended this season. Here are excerpts of what he had to say as he stood by his locker Wednesday:
--Strong safety Chris Harris played a big role in helping him succeed Sunday, Martin said. Harris talked to him on the field, especially harping about recognizing Arizona formations. (Both of Martin's interceptions came on plays when the Cardinals lined up in a shotgun and thew towards the sideline).
"Chris Harris is a guy I can learn a whole lot from," Martin says. He added that the Steelers' Troy Polamalu and the Ravens' Ed Reed were two safeties he admired when he was in college.
--Martin is unsure if he will start Sunday's game at New Orleans, nor does he know how much he will play. He is preparing for the game much the same way he prepared for other games this season, he says. (Godfrey did not practice Wednesday).
The strong first start boosts Martin's confidence, he says, but it has not helped him to relax. "I got something I can build off of. (But) there's a lot of things I can work on."
When asked for his take on his first start, he said: "I can't ask for another way."
--Martin won't allow the big game in Arizona to get to his head, he says. He celebrated by taking it easy when he got home (the Panthers' plane landed at 1:30 a.m. Monday and, fortunately for Panthers fans, it doesn't seem like Martin knows about the service-night parties that rage late into Charlotte Sunday evenings). The next day he went out with a few teammates to eat and watch "Monday Night Football."
Others were excited for Martin, though. Several family members and friends called, and when he turned his cellphone on after the game, he had 17 new text messages.
--Nothing about his rookie year has surprised Martin so far, he says. He was disappointed with the injury and the losses early on. "It started out not quite as I would have liked," he said.
Sunday's performance has not changed Martin's goals for his rookie season, he says. "It just helped out to be able to contribute," he says. So his objectives remain: "Finding my role on the team, being able to contribute and win games."
--Martin kept both footballs that he intercepted Sunday.
On the first pick, he started out deep in the middle of the field. Arizona was running a two-minute drill and the Panthers rushed five defenders, leaving Martin back as their last line of defense. Warner threw towards the left sideline for receiver Larry Fitzgerald, running a corner route. Martin took off for the sideline. "Once I seen (Warner's) hand come off the ball, I was out of there," he said. The ball was slightly overthrown and Martin caught it in stride, then tumbled out of bounds at the Carolina 43.
The second pick came when Gamble jarred the ball loose from tight end Jerheme Urban. Martin caught the carom at the Arizona 43 and returned it down the left sideline to the 20. "The second one was a great play by Gamble," Martin said. "It was just me being in the right place at the right time."
Of course, Martin was in the right place for the free safety to be on that play. "When you get there," he said, "things have a crazy way of happening."
--Martin is not fazed by facing so many good quarterbacks in consecutive weeks. (After playing Warner, the Panthers face All-Pro Drew Brees Sunday and last year's rookie sensation Matt Ryan Nov. 15). "It's the NFL," he said. "A quarterback is a quarterback."
--The injuries have actually helped make Martin a better player, he says. "Overall it just made my work ethic better. I always felt like I was behind." That sense of urgency "played a major part" in motivating Martin to get ready for Sunday's game and consequently snatch those two interceptions.
When asked how healthy he is now, Martin replied: "Nobody plays this game 100 percent, but I'm as good as I can be."