CHARLOTTE – With rookie wide receiver Joe Adams active for the first time in two months, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn felt like he needed to make a play to retain his punt return responsibilities.
After a 14-yard return, one of his best of the season, ended in a lost fumble, Munnerlyn knew he really needed to make a play.
Shortly after the turnover, Munnerlyn got it back and then some, picking off a Josh Freeman pass and returning it 76 yards for a touchdown to jumpstart a previously listless Panthers team.
The Panthers proceeded to score 21 unanswered points and build a 21-10 lead, but they didn't have the answers down the stretch and fell 27-21 in overtime to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I put the team in a hole by fumbling a punt return, so I felt like I had to make a play," Munnerlyn said. "The D-line did a great job of getting pressure, and I took it to the house.
"Our defense just kept battling and battling, but we let it go at the end."
Munnerlyn's second interception return for a touchdown this season gave him three for his career, second in franchise history to Mike Minter's four.
But Munnerlyn wasn't in a celebratory mood after the Buccaneers' final two drives resulted in touchdowns, both covering 80 yards. Before that, Tampa Bay had just one touchdown drive, and it covered just 29 yards – after Munnerlyn's fumble.
"We did a pretty good job containing the running back (Doug Martin) and making Josh Freeman throw incomplete passes," Munnerlyn said. "But that doesn't matter. It's about winning. No matter how we played the first three quarters, we didn't get the win."
Adams handled the majority of the punt return duties after Munnerlyn's turnover and took advantage of the opportunity with returns of 16 and 11 yards.
That was part of another up-and-down day for the special teams units in Richard Rodgers' debut as special teams coordinator. Safety Haruki Nakamura shared the harsh special teams spotlight with Munnerlyn, but like Munnerlyn, he made amends after making an error.
In last week's loss to Denver, the Broncos left Carolina's gunners on the punt coverage team uncovered on the outside. Tampa Bay appeared to do the same, and Nakamura – who calls the plays for the punt coverage unit as the upback – tried to take advantage by calling for a punt fake.
But the Buccaneers had time to get someone close to gunner Colin Jones just before the snap, and the play blew up.
"What you really would have liked to see is Haruki call it off," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "What happened was that by the time the snap was made, they had sent a guy out there to defend it. So rather than throwing it and possibly getting it intercepted, Haruki pulled it down and tried to get what he could."
Nakamura, however, erased the error on the very next snap when he picked off a Freeman lob toward the end zone.
Munnerlyn responded to adversity in similar fashion, and now he'll have to respond yet again after what looked like a comeback victory ended in demoralizing defeat.
"We have to learn from it," Munnerlyn said. "I know that sounds like a broken record, but we've got to learn how to finish games.
"We're not doing a very good job right now. We've just got to keep working at it. We have to play all four quarters – offensively, defensively, special teams – just put it all together."