With much focus on the Carolina Panthers finding a No. 2 receiver, Matt Moore’s status for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game or even the offensive line problems, the special teams has made the biggest improve.
The Panthers’ kicking game has overcome some early preseason struggles to become a productive unit.
“We started out with a lot of young guys, and those guys have learned as we’ve gone along,” special teams coach Jeff Rodgers said. “The returners have taken better care of the ball.
“What the tape said, even though we were mishandling some things (such as punts), the guys who were blocking, and things like that, they were already doing well. We were not seeing the results because we were not doing a good job taking care of the ball.”
Rodgers, who replaced the fired Danny Crossman during the offseason, had his work cut out for him after the Panthers lost 9-3 to the New York Jets. The Jets scored three field goals due to kicking game miscues, and the special teams had three of the five Carolina turnovers.
The Panthers also used five different punt returners, kick returner Mike Goodson made two poor decisions that gave the Panthers bad field position and there was a 67-yard punt return by the Jets.
Things could only go up.
And since that poor performance, it has.
The kicking game has improved tremendously. The next week against the Tennessee Titans, the Panthers forced a turnover and Goodson took a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown.
Since the preseason, the Panthers have settled on a punt returner in cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. The second-year pro had a 28-yard punt return against the New York Giants last weekend.
Munnerlyn credits Rodgers for the improvement. He said the special teams unit has bought into what Rodgers has been coaching, and the players believe in the systems.
“You have to play football with a little swagger, and we have some swagger about the special teams,” Munnerlyn said. “We want to be the best, and we want to win.”
More importantly since the second preseason game, the unit has come together and is making plays such as the 45-yard kickoff return by Goodson against the Giants, which help set up the Steve Smith touchdown before halftime.
The Panthers were outscored 17-2 in the second half by the Giants game. The safety came when Greg Hardy blocked a punt that went out the back of the end zone.
Coach John Fox said the kicking game was good against the Giants. Fox said the only negatives were a bad snap by long snapper J.J. Jansen in the third quarter and former Panthers kickoff specialist Todd Carter, who had back spasms.
Fox said the group has worked hard in practice, and that is a major reason for its improvement. Fox hopes the kicking unit continues to improve against a good Bucs special teams unit.
Asked about the Tampa Bay special teams ability to block kicks, Rodgers said he emphasizes fundamentals and doesn’t worry about what any opponent can do. The kicking unit has to take care of its business and those big plays are unlikely to happen, Rodgers added.
In addition, the Panthers special teams has had to overcome injuries to starters such as Munnerlyn, Jordan Senn, Jamar Williams, Wallace Wright, Charly Martin, Tyrell Sutton and Aaron Francisco.
“We spend half our time on fundamental stuff and half our time on drill work and coaching technique, so when the next guy gets called he has already had all the fundamental work,” Rodgers said. “The guys have done a good job just knowing their assignments and continuing to work on their fundamentals, so when the next guy has been called he is ready.”
When Wright injured his shoulder in the third preseason game and was lost for the season, special teams player Marcus Hudson said the unit will miss Wright. But Hudson still believes the unit could be one of the best in the NFL.
Hudson said the special teams can take a lot of positives from the Giants game. He, however, said the unit has to eliminate penalties because they were momentum builders for the Giants and put the Panthers in bad field position.
“As far as us being the best, we believe in this system,” Hudson said. “I think it has been growing since preseason. You see more players doing more good things than bad. It is just every now and then, we have a break down, so if we can just tighten up on the little things, we will get better.”
Rodgers doesn’t seem to have a problem with the special teams goal of being No. 1, but he points out it’s a long season and the importance of consistency.
“There are still several things to clean up,” he said. “We can’t be the best unit in the league if we average four penalties a game, which we did a week ago. So, there is still a ton of room for improvement.
“But I think guys are starting to see results from the work we are putting in. That kind of thing can get contagious. We talk about playing at a standard. We talk about playing at a level of play where we can have success in the kicking game. Whether or not we achieve that throughout the whole season that remains to be seen, but it certainly something you have to strive for.”
Panthers Notes: Charly Martin on IR
On Friday, Carolina placed wideout and special teams player Charly Martin on season-ending injured reserve. The Panthers re-signed cornerback C.J. Wilson, who was waived about two weeks ago. Wilson also suffered a concussion during the preseason.
In addition, the Panthers have listed receiver Brandon LaFell (hamstring), quarterback Matt Moore (concussion) and running back Tyrell Sutton (shoulder) as probable for the game against Tampa Bay.
Defensive end Tyler Brayton (ankle), cornerback Chris Gamble (ankle), linebacker Jordan Senn (ankle) are questionable for the game. Defensive tackle Louis Leonard (elbow) is doubtful, and Jeff Otah will not play against Tampa Bay.
However, Moore and LaFell are expected to start. Moore practiced for a third straight day on Friday. He practiced Thursday and Friday without any limitations.
Also, Gamble, Leonard and Brayton did not practice on Friday.
The Panthers announced Friday that the Tampa Bay and Cincinnati games are sellouts. Carolina avoids a black out. The Panthers have not had a black out since December 8, 2002, which was a game against Cincinnati.