CHARLOTTE – In a defensive slugfest like the one the Panthers and 49ers waged on Sunday, the field position battle became all the more critical.
And it was the Carolina special teams that played a significant role in the 10-9 victory.
"Our special teams contributors are taking an awful lot of pride in that unit," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Very pleased with what we got from that group."
Ted Ginn averaged 21.7 yards on three punt returns, and his final one – a 25-yarder – set up Graham Gano's game-winning 53-yard field goal.
The coverage units then made two impact plays in the fourth quarter to keep field position in Carolina's favor.
On the kickoff following Gano's 53-yard field goal, linebacker Jordan Senn and safety Colin Jones – Carolina's special teams aces – combined to tackle returner Anthony Dixon at the 12-yard line.
Later, Brad Nortman – whose first punt of the game traveled a career-long 65 yards – hit a 40-yard punt that was downed by Jones at the San Francisco 1-yard line.
"Those are huge," Rivera said. "It's hidden yardage that people don't realize. When you can keep a team pinned down, it is very hard to go 99 yards or 90 yards or 80 yards to score points. That's very important."
TAKEN AWAY: The Panthers defense thought it had come away with a red zone takeaway midway through the second quarter, but the officials ruled otherwise.
On second down from the Carolina 6-yard line, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis reeled in a pass in the flat and safety Mike Mitchell popped the ball out of his hands. Linebacker Thomas Davis recovered the loose ball against the sideline.
Rivera challenged the ruling on the field of an incomplete pass, and the call was upheld after review.
"They didn't think it was a football move after he had caught it," Rivera said. "It is part of the game. It is all interpretation. That's how they interpreted it.
"As much as I disagree, it is part of the game. It's the element that we have to accept."
CONFIDENT IN CHANDLER: Nate Chandler made his first career start at right guard against the 49ers in place of injured starter Chris Scott (knee), and Rivera thought he performed well overall.
His highlight play came on the game's only touchdown, as Chandler's block sealed a big hole for DeAngelo Williams en route to a 27-yard score.
When asked if he's confident in Chandler moving forward, Rivera responded, 'Oh yeah.'
"We'll see how Chris Scott is, but Nate did some really nice things."
Rivera was also pleased to see recently signed lineman Geoff Hangartner back in action. Hangartner played seven plays in his 2013 debut.
"Having a veteran guy like that getting back into football shape is important. He is a very nice security blanket for us in terms of a center/guard combination," Rivera said. "Very pleased having Geoff back. It was good to see him on the football field."