Special teams were a bit of roller coaster ride for the Panthers a year ago, but opening day gave reason to think there could be more climbs than dips this season.
Special teams play was an area of emphasis during the offseason, and Carolina came away with an edge in just about every phase of special teams against the New York Giants last week. The Panthers averaged 24.6 yards on kickoffs compared to 13.4 for New York and had more than a 10-yard advantage in punt return average.
The surprise is that several of the team's key additions were not even on the field. Wallace Wright, a free agent signed from the New York Jets, is on injured reserve with a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason. Aaron Francisco sustained a hamstring injury during training camp and never playeda game, and Jordan Senn -- one of the team's best specialists in the second half of last year -- did not play at New York because of an ankle injury.
Nevertheless, first-year special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers' units came up with the Panthers' first blocked punt in six years; a 45-yard kickoff return that set up the Panthers' touchdown just before the half; and three field goals from kicker John Kasay.
That's not to say it was all good. There was a ground-hugging punt snap that proved costly -- the first of JJ Jansen's career and an aberration to his previous body of work. The errant snap was also a reminder of the impact that special teams can have on a game, which makes the success in the unit's other phases reasons for optimism.
The opening day performance continued a trend that started in the second half of the preseason. After a slow start, the Panthers were among the league leaders in several special teams preseason categories, including kickoff returns, where a 91-yard touchdown by Mike Goodson would have snapped a seven-year drought had it occurred in the regular season.
It's only one week, but here are some of the team's NFL rankings:
|Kickoff Return Coverage||13.4||2|
|Punt Return Coverage||6.8||16|
Thanks to rookie Greg Hardy's blocked punt, Carolina's opponent net punting average is last in the league and their average kickoff return drive start is sixth. With Todd Carter unable to play following the opening kickoff, the Panthers are just 23rd in opponents' drive start, but the signing of Rhys Lloyd to replace the injured Carter could give that category a boost.
Going into the season, the Panthers knew their combination of specialists in Kasay and punter Jason Baker ranked among the best in the league.
Now, albeit based on just one week, the Panthers have reasons to hope that other parts of their special teams units could be special as well.