- Nov 3, 2003
Gamble becomes tougher tackler
Once suspect against the run, rookie has made strides as stopper
By Darin Gantt The Herald
(Published December 31‚ 2004)
CHARLOTTE -- The interceptions are all well and good, and both cornerback Chris Gamble and the Carolina Panthers are glad to have them.
What both sides take more pride in, however, is the way the first-round pick has become a more complete player, realizing the importance of run defense and not just snagging passes out of mid-air.
Toward that end, Gamble has made tremendous strides since he came here in April highly touted for his coverage skills but a non-factor in the other half of the game.
That was a challenge for his coaches, including secondary coach and former NFL cornerback Rod Perry, who had to take a phenomenal athlete and teach him how to be a football player.
"He's a lot better than when he first got here," Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said of Gamble's run defense. "We've really been on him hard about that, because that wasn't high on his agenda when he got here. Our players also, with Mike (Minter) and the veteran leadership we had ... They got on him, and they let him know that he needed to play run defense here.
"We're used to that with the corners we had here in the past."
In terms of overall ability, a comparison of Gamble to former Panthers starters Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin is a laugher.
Neither was as big or as fast as Gamble, and neither could cover big, fast receivers the way he can. Both figured to struggle this year with a new rules emphasis that kept defensive backs from mauling receivers at the line.
What Howard and Cousin could do was tackle, and that's something Gamble admits took him time to learn.
"In college, I was always just playing," Gamble said. "It's not like I was trying to come up and tackle. I wasn't in practice doing tackling drills and stuff like that. Once I got up here, I started getting more involved with tackling drills and still trying to get more physical. That's what the coaches wanted.
"I just try to go out and show them I'm physical and I can play on this level."
Early in the season, Gamble's tackling skills were suspect. Missed tackles were as common as passes broken up, an inexcusable occurrence in the Panthers' scheme.
"I don't know what they told him at Ohio State, but it is high on our agenda here," Trgovac said. "A lot of times, corners think they're just cover guys. And we use our corners here in our run defense, and they're getting very good at it.
"We had to sell him on the idea. He really is a good kid and a coachable kid, and he really wants to be good. It's your job as a coach to get it done with him."
Gamble said he quickly realized he needed to get better at his self-described "weakness."
It's understandable that he was less than polished as a cornerback when the Panthers drafted him, since he spent parts of two years playing defense after being recruited to play wide receiver. He said he never understood that you could pick up tips from offensive linemen before the snap, discerning whether the coming play was a run or a pass and adjusting.
"I've learned so much in the NFL that I didn't know in college," Gamble said. "It wasn't no big deal. Just concentrating on the guy and playing rough. Just playing football, because football is toughness and just being rough. I kind of missed a lot of tackles early in the season, but as the season went on I think I got better tackling and just being more physical and having fun.
"That was my weakness, just being physical. I wanted to work on my weakness and make it a strength, and try to be that complete cornerback."
Gamble said he first noticed the way Panthers cornerbacks played last year in the playoffs, when he saw Ricky Manning Jr. working over Philadelphia receivers in the NFC championship game.
Manning also had three interceptions in that game, and Gamble has shown a knack for making picks as well.
With six interceptions so far this year, Gamble has doubled Manning's previous team rookie record. He shook his head at that number.
"I think I should have more interceptions than I've got now," he said. "It was a lot of opportunities that I know I could have had, and I should be in double-digit interceptions. But I'll make up for it in this game and wait until next year too and just start off fast.''
While Gamble might have come here deficient in some areas, he's still performed above expectations.
The Panthers signed veteran Artrell Hawkins to start opposite Manning this year, hoping to allow Gamble to develop slowly by playing corner in third-down situations. When Hawkins spent most of training camp on the sidelines with a knee injury, the on-the-job training began for the first-rounder, and he never gave the starting job back.
"We just need him to be consistent," Trgovac said. "With what happened with Artrell getting hurt early, we kind of envisioned him (Gamble) not getting all the playing time he's getting as early as he's getting it, but he responded well for us.
"He was pressed into starting duty from day one, and he didn't come around as fast as we hoped he would early. But he's made some big plays for us. That's what we need him to keep doing."