CHARLOTTE – Sarcastically or not, many fans were calling for punter Andy Lee to be named team MVP at season's end.
And then Week 10 happened. Lee injured his right hamstring – his punting leg – so severely that he was forced to the injured reserve list.
After only the third regular season start of his career, it seems Carolina has found a more than capable stand-in punter in Michael Palardy.
Last Sunday in Seattle, three of Palardy's six punts pinned the Seahawks inside their own 20-yard line.
"Well, a lot of that had to do with the coverage team getting down there fast and making the returner go side-to-side instead of vertical," Palardy said. "We knew he (Tyler Lockett) was a very elusive returner, so it was up to me to put the ball in a spot where the coverage team could kind of pin him close to the sideline."
Lockett, who showed his ability with a 75-yard touchdown run in the game, entered the game averaging 9.5 yards per return. The Panthers were able to hold him to only 12 yards total on his three returns, and 10 of those yards were on one return.
"I think it's where we're trying to make it a well-oiled machine, to where every time we go out on the field, the other team knows that we're going to put them on the sideline and we're going to cover well," Palardy said. "That's the most important part, and it just so happened that three of the punts were inside the 20. That's part of my job, to make the opposing offense go the distance and make the defense's job a little bit easier, and hopefully that continues to happen throughout the course of the next few games."
Adjusting from Lee, a 13-season veteran, to the young Palardy took work, but the coverage team was more than up to the task.
"The biggest thing is it comes with practice," linebacker Jeremy Cash said. "Each punter is different in their ways of punting. They're even different in Andy is a right-footed punter and Michael is a left-footed punter. It's just something you get adjusted to. Each one has their strengths and weaknesses, and through practice you learn what they're best at and become acclimated to what they do."
If Palardy and Co. thought keeping Lockett in check was a chore, their job only gets harder against Chargers return specialist Isaiah Burse this Sunday. Burse averages 10.1 yards per return and has only called for a fair catch five times all season. He'll try to add to his two 20-plus-yard returns against a Carolina punt team that has allowed 349 punt return yards – the second most in the NFL.
The young punter is up for the challenge though, made evident by forcing Lockett out-of-bounds on his first punt of the game to notch his first career tackle.
"If the returner, for whatever reason breaks, I have to be there to make the play," Palardy said. "I can't give up six points. As soon as that ball is in the air, I have to be one of the guys, and if I have to make a play, I make a play."
View photos of Panthers practice leading up to their game against the Chargers.