Panthers dig deep hole with punt coverage breakdowns against Colts

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INDIANAPOLIS – The Panthers' issues during what's now become a seven-game losing skid have been well documented. And they've been recurring.

But on Sunday against the Colts, a new problem surfaced and kept Carolina from being competitive.

"Our punt coverage let the team down today," long snapper J.J. Jansen said. "Plain and simple."

The Colts' dynamic young returner Nyheim Hines took two punts all the way for scores as Indianapolis pulled away for a 38-6 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.

One punt return touchdown is rare enough, let alone two.

The last time Carolina gave up two punt returns for touchdowns was back in 1997 against Denver. Two punt return scores in the same game has only happened 10 times since 1995.

And it was a 40-yard punt return by Hines after the Panthers started the game with a three-and-out that served as the initial warning sign that trouble was ahead.

That return allowed the Colts to start their first drive at the Carolina 36-yard line. They took a 7-0 lead eight plays later.

Following another three-and-out, Michael Palardy hit a 56-yard punt to the Indianapolis 16-yard line. Gunner DeAndrew White got sealed off, creating a big lane for Hines to exploit down the left sideline. That left Palardy one-on-one with Hines, and the Carolina punter is always going to have a hard time surviving that battle.

"He got vertical," Palardy said, "and the rest was history."

Hines blew past Palardy and celebrated an 84-yard return to give the Colts a 14-0 lead with the game just a few minutes old.

"It put pressure on the entire team," interim head coach Perry Fewell said of the failures in coverage. "Instead of staying focused, we probably panicked a little bit."

Instead, rookie quarterback Will Grier – making his first career start – was forced to play from behind. The Panthers never were able to settle into the game, and the deficit steadily grew as it wore on.

And it was Hines who delivered the knockout punch midway through the fourth quarter.

Fewell wanted to punt the ball out of bounds, but Palardy didn't hit it cleanly and his 53-yard effort was fielded at the Colts' 29.

"Hindsight is always 20-20, and yeah, of course you'd love it to be out of bounds," Palardy said.

Hines found space to maneuver and members of the coverage team were left in his wake as he again sprinted down the sideline and high-stepped into the end zone for a 71-yard score.

"Dangerous return man," Fewell said. "We didn't get population to the ball. We tried to punt the ball away from him, we tried to punt it out of bounds. We did not do that."

"We just didn't execute," Jansen added. "We knew what they were going to do. Everything played out the way we anticipated. We did not make tackles. We did not finish at the point of attack. A good returner gets in space and when you allow that, it's tough."

Wins have been hard to come by for this Panthers team that now finds itself 5-10 with one game left in the season. And they know it's nearly impossible to emerge victorious when you give up two scores on special teams.

"All of us are frustrated," Palardy said. "It's a game-changer. Hard to overcome."

View photos from Week 15 as Carolina visits Indianapolis.

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