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Special teams live up to their name

Posted Dec 20, 2010

CHARLOTTE - Special teams duty often is a thankless job, but Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, Panthers special teamers got thanks before, during and after the game.

The coaching staff chose to single out special teams starters rather than the offensive or defensive units in pregame introductions, and several of them made crucial plays during the game.

After the game, a 19-12 victory that snapped the Panthers' seven-game losing skid, head coach John Fox referred to his special teams players as "warriors."

"It was a good day for them," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "I thought it was great that we introduced the special teams. They've been extremely consistent this year and have made a lot of big plays.

"And to see guys like (kicker) John Kasay and (punter) Jason Baker get cheered - I think our kicker was the most well-received guy of anybody."

Kasay responded by connecting on all four of his field goal attempts, and Captain Munnerlyn had two 26-yard punt returns that set up field goals. The team's eight special teams tackles came from eight different players.

But much of the special teams chatter began and ended with Jordan Senn. The reserve linebacker addressed the team Saturday night and then recovered a pair of onside kicks Sunday, including one that allowed the Panthers to run out the clock in the victory formation.

"He basically just said, ‘Everybody needs to put everything on the line. When you're done with the game, don't have anything left in the tank,' " running back Mike Goodson said. "I don't think anybody has anything left, and we came out victorious."

Senn and his no-holds-barred approach to special teams is among the reasons the units have improved drastically this season.

"I think it takes special people to play special teams in terms of mindset," Senn said. "You'll see some guys make like one good play on special teams because everybody is a good athlete out here, but the next play they might not do anything. What is that? That's all in your mindset.

"I like special teams. It challenges people. It shows what type of person you are: Do you play this game just to play defense and be one of the big names, or do you play because you love the game and want to win?"

Last season, the Panthers ranked last in the NFL in the Dallas Morning News' annual special teams rankings, which break down special teams in 22 categories. This season, under first-year special teams coach Jeff Rodgers, the Panthers are expected to be in the middle of the pack when the rankings come out following the regular season finale.

"Guys are just getting after it more and buying into what Coach Rodgers is telling us," Munnerlyn said. "Offensive and defensive guys are stepping up on special teams. We're taking a lot of pride in it."

There are still areas of potential improvement to be sure.

Munnerlyn had a punt return deep into Cardinals territory early in Sunday's victory wiped out by an illegal block, but he still ranks 11th in the NFL with an 11.0 average.

Kasay missed what would have been the game-winning field goal at Cleveland three weeks ago, but he hit the game-winner against San Francisco in Week 7 and ranks seventh in the NFL in field goals made (23, on 27 attempts) even though the Panthers rank last in the league in scoring.

Goodson had a kickoff return for a touchdown nullified by a penalty at Seattle, but he's clearly a threat to take it all the way at any time, as he did in the Panthers' lone preseason victory.

"In comparison to last year we've made huge strides, but we're still not where we want to be," said defensive back Marcus Hudson, who leads the team with 15 special teams tackles. "Last year, we were at the bottom of the special teams charts; this year, we're in the middle of the pack. That's good, but there still are opportunities that we know we've left out on the field that we wish we could get back.

"We're a good unit. We've just got to keep piecing the puzzle together."