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Minutes: Searching for something special

Posted Oct 27, 2009

The Panthers will get Dante Wesley back this week, but their special teams were enduring ups and downs before his Week 6 ejection and Week 7 suspension. (PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

CHARLOTTE -- Much of special teams is at its best when it is uneventful. The kickoff that sails through the end zone without being touched. The punt that lingers in mid-air before yielding a fair catch. The field goal that goes safely through the uprights, as it has countless times before.

Such moments have become fleeting in recent weeks, with one field-goal attempt blocked in Tampa, another two sailing away from the uprights against Buffalo, a kickoff being returned 97 yards for a touchdown and a punt bouncing out of Kenneth Moore's grasp and into Buffalo's control, a giveaway that was as costly as the two interceptions that preceded it in the most recent loss.

While Jake Delhomme's 13 interceptions and the questions they spawned has been topic A among anyone chattering about the Panthers this week, the special-teams issues have been equally damaging to the Panthers' mindset.

"That's part of the confidence. Those negative plays influence the whole football team," head coach John Fox said. "At one point in the season, I used to say, 'A punt's not a bad play.' I'm starting to wonder."

The return of Dante Wesley from a one-week suspension will help the Panthers this week; Wesley has grown into the team's emotional leader on kickoff and punt coverage units, and his recovery of a muffed Redskins punt return in Week 5 is one of the two most significant positive plays for the special teams this year. The other play is Moore's 55-yard kickoff return, also against the Redskins. Both set up touchdowns, proving that the Panthers' special teams does possess the ability to win a game.

Unfortunately for Carolina, those moments have been outnumbered by frustrating ones such as those against the Buccaneers and Bills, as well as DeSean Jackson's punt return for a touchdown in Week 1. The Panthers are the only NFC team and one of just two in the league to surrender touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns already this season.

"(Against Tampa Bay), our kickoff coverage wasn't exactly stellar," Fox said. "That was a potentially game-changing play (when the team was) up 21-7, and (to) have a kickoff taken back 97 yards doesn't do a boatload for your confidence. We missed three tackles on the play, one by our kicker."

Kickoff returns have been a focal point the last two games, exacerbated the last by kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd's ankle injury. During those two games, opponents have returned six out of seven Carolina kickoffs -- including two of three that made it into the end zone. In the first four games, only seven out of 14 total kickoffs -- including five of 12 made it to the end zone -- were returned.

Through the Panthers' first four games, Lloyd was closer to a sure thing than almost anyone else at the kickoff craft; all but two of his 14 kickoffs in that span made it to the end zone. Even after the last two games, Lloyd still ranks among the league's leaders in touchbacks (38.1 percent, fifth in the league) and end-zone kickoffs (71.4 percent, third in the league).

But when kickoffs are returned, the Panthers have stuggled. The Panthers rank last in the league on average drive-start position on kickoffs that aren't downed for touchbacks -- the opponent's 33-yard-line. Among the seven clubs whose average drive-start on non-touchback kickoff returns is outside the 30-yard-line, Lloyd and the Panthers are the only team to have more than 35 percent of their kickoffs go into the end zone, whether they're downed for touchbacks or not.

These are the hidden yards -- which, like those picked up on interception returns, don't show up on the total-offense/defense rankings, but are nevertheless damaging the Panthers. If November is to be better than the two months that preceded it, the Panthers not only have to take better care of the football; they have to pick up more yardage on kickoffs and punts.

WESLEY'S RETURN meant the Panthers had to release safety Keith Lewis to make room on the 53-man roster. Lewis signed with the Panthers last week but was inactive for the loss to Buffalo.