This time, DJ Moore got trapped.
Usually, the introverted Carolina Panthers receiver doesn’t command an overwhelming media scrum. That’s less a product of Moore’s talent than his proclivity for talking — or rather, not talking — but it’s the case after most games and during almost every midweek media availability. Moore keeps quiet, and he gets to keep to himself.
That usually means his locker mate, receiver Curtis Samuel, is left to do the talking for the both of them.
Not so much this Sunday.
After the Panthers’ 30-20 victory over the Tennessee Titans, Samuel took a speedy postgame shower and packed his bag. By the time reporters had finished interviewing coach Ron Rivera and poured into the locker room, Samuel was halfway out the door.
Which — while fine for Samuel, a third-year pass-catcher out of Ohio State — meant Moore got stuck behind to do the dirty work.
And Samuel, knowing Moore’s preference not to answer questions, was delighted to watch his friend get swallowed up by the scrum.
“You see what you started?” Samuel mimed to Moore from across the locker room, making eye contact in the cracks between reporters. Moore, mid-answer, cut himself off to respond: “Yeah, my best bud over there is telling me I’ve got a few seconds left.”
Why such a hoopla over the Panthers’ pair of young pass catchers? There’s some context to unpack.
Last week, after Carolina’s 51-13 throttling at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, former Panthers receiver Steve Smith went on local radio station WFNZ and seemingly criticized Moore and Samuel. Smith said he was unsure “if we have any wide receivers that can beat man coverage” and lamented Moore’s “lackluster effort on a fumble.”
Moore said Sunday he had no comment on Smith’s interview. But because of those remarks, there was additional pressure on both he and Samuel heading into Sunday’s matchup, fittingly against a formidable cornerback duo of Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan.
And with their performances, each made a statement.
Moore finished with seven receptions for 101 yards, good for just his second career 100-yard receiving game. And while Samuel has never produced a 100-yard game in his two-plus seasons in the NFL, he had three catches for 64 yards and a score Sunday. Their 165 combined receiving yards are actually the third-most the pair has ever had in a single game, behind last season’s loss in Detroit (212 combined yards) and this year’s loss to Tampa (180 yards).
“We’ve always known what we have in Curtis and DJ,” quarterback Kyle Allen said. “We’ve known what we have in them. People can say what they want, but we know what we have in these receivers, and they stepped up big today like they have a lot of times in the past. I think they are young receivers who are playing at a really high level, and they’re continuing to get better better at their craft.”
Their impact started early, when on the first third down of the game, Moore ditched his route and worked backward to Allen for a tough conversion. The drive didn’t go anywhere, but it set a tone that the young receivers would be involved early.
Right before the first quarter ended, Samuel got in on the action. He beat Ryan down the right sideline and Allen threw a pass with perfect touch over the leaping cornerback; Samuel slid as the ball came into his grasp, collecting 32 yards in the process. It was his longest reception since a 44-yarder against the Bucs in Week 2.
“We’ve got athletes outside. We’re trying to make plays down the field,” Samuel told the Observer. “Kyle’s been doing a great job throwing the ball, delivering the ball, and once he gives us a chance? As receivers, we have to come down with it.”
Just before halftime, the pair had a set of dynamic plays that the Panthers desperately needed. After a sack on second down forced Carolina’s offense into a third-and-14, Allen found Moore on a screen out left and let his receiver do the work. Moore, known for his ability to pick up yards after the catch (YAC), promptly went bumping and bouncing through defenders and gained 18 yards for the first down.
Two plays later, Samuel faked out Butler with a double-move and came down with his third touchdown of the year.
“(Butler) bailed. Once I faked the in-cut and went back out, the ball was in the air,” Samuel said of his touchdown. “Kyle gave me a chance, and that’s all I can ask for.”
But arguably the most impressive play either made Sunday was midway through the third quarter, after the Titans had scored a touchdown to cut Carolina’s lead to 10. Allen dropped back and threw long for Moore down the left sideline — and into double coverage.
The ball was tipped in the air but Moore tapped his toes next to the pylon. Referees initially ruled it out.
That’s when Moore came over, right in front of them, and pointed to the divot in the grass — in bounds — that his toes had made.
“I just knew it was a catch,” Moore said. “(Curtis) knew it was a catch, I knew it was a catch. That’s why I pointed at the ground.”
Added Samuel: “I was on the sideline like, it’s a grab. I’ve seen my brother with the catch, and I already knew it was in.”
Referees ultimately reversed the call, setting running back Christian McCaffrey up for a 1-yard touchdown.
“Those plays are critical when you can be explosive down the field and make contested catches,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “You’re going to be covered in this league. You know, not everybody is gonna run around wide open. It’s not high school. But that’s what those guys can do, on top of what they can do with the ball in their hands, which we’ve seen a lot of.
“Today was a great day for those guys, but we’re not surprised. They’ve done that before.”
Back in the locker room, Moore’s time with the media kept dragging. He referenced how he and Samuel “low key” try to one-up each other on the field, although Samuel described it as trying to push each other. Meanwhile, Samuel started tapping at an imaginary watch on his wrist, telling Moore to move things along.
One by one, reporters trickled away until just a single camera remained with the former first-round pick. Even though Moore’s 564 receiving yards this season leads the team, it’s still a surprise to see him command such a media presence.
But right before he finally shook free, Moore said something that seemed to address Smith’s comments. More than that, it spoke to the future of this Panthers offense when its two young receivers play like they did Sunday:
“You can see when we’re locked in,” Moore said, “the things that we can do.”