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Panthers leaning into "return season" 

Raheem Blackshear

CHARLOTTE — Offensive and defensive guys might argue over who has the advantage when the weather gets colder or if the wind is blowing or precipitation is falling from the sky.

But Panthers special teams coordinator Chris Tabor stakes his own claim because he said they celebrated the return of "return season" a few weeks ago, and he also happens to be overseeing the league's top return game. And since footballs don't fly as far when it's cold, there's more of a chance for some big plays.

"You know, this time of year when it's colder, the ball doesn't travel (as far in the air), as I call it is, we're in return season," Tabor said Thursday with a gleam in his eye. "We always have a little celebration in the special teams room for return season; it's officially open."

And that joy is not just because he invoked cartoons and showed his players a Looney Tunes-inspired video to kick off the start of return season (as opposed to duck season or rabbit season). The Panthers lead the NFL in average drive start on kickoffs, taking over at the 27.0 yard line. (Coincidentally, the Steelers are 32nd in the league in average drive start allowed.) Returns aren't as prevalent as they used to be, and the margins are small, but the Panthers have done well when they've had a chance.

They signed All-Pro return man Andre Roberts this offseason because they wanted the return to be more of a factor, but he's been out most of the season with a knee injury. They found a good replacement on kickoffs in running back Raheem Blackshear, who had 200 yards worth of returns on seven tries in his first shot at the job, and averages 27.2 yards per return on the season.

Blackshear also scored his second rushing touchdown last week in Seattle but said he's still hoping for a return score this year.

"It was just fun getting in the end zone, getting to celebrate with my brothers," Blackshear said. "I'm waiting to bring one back; I want to go end zone to end zone; that's what I'm waiting on. I'm waiting on that big one so I can rip it open. When it comes, you're going to see me kick up. I'm going to get it. I'm going to get one."

Of course, because he had some early success, he's only getting so many opportunities. With many teams opting to play for touchbacks, he's only had six return chances since the first game but took one of them 66 yards in Cincinnati (and he's only gotten three chances since).

"I learned over time. Coach Tabes sat me down and talked to me and said that comes with being a good returner; a lot of teams respect you now," Blackshear said. "But I'm still young. I still want to have fun back there. But it's just take the opportunities you're given."

Tabor said there are still some things he'd like to see tightened up (specifically penalties), but the fun-loving special teams coach can't help but grin when the leaves turn and he knows it's his favorite time of the year.

"We had a little video, and Elmer Fudd made it, and, you know, it was good," Tabor said. "I think the guys liked it. And I hope they did. You know, we laugh about it. But at the same time, there's a seriousness about it that, you know, chances are you're going to have more returns. You have to be better in the penalty area of not getting a hold on kick returns and having a big one; then it sets you back. You got to be able to cover and make the offense go a long way against our defense. And that's really the nuts and bolts of it."

— Panthers offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo has been saying for weeks he loves it when the weather gets cold, especially with the way the Panthers are playing on the offensive line and running it lately. Just talking about D'Onta Foreman brings out the football guy in him.

"I like the big, heavy-handed physical type players," McAdoo said. "You know, when he hits the hole, he moves the pile. I like those kinds of guys, especially for this time of year."

He also likes the fact they're doing it with multiple backs. While Foreman has led the way lately, they also got big contributions from Chuba Hubbard and Blackshear last week, and that can only help keep Foreman healthy.

"But we wanted to spread the wealth a little bit in the backfield and had some jersey numbers on (certain) things on the game plan," McAdoo said. "And that's where you start, and you know, you kind of progress through the game. And if things are going according to plan, you stick with it. If not you adjust and improvise. And it just so happens that it happens. That worked out pretty well for us last week. And you know, we had a chance to spread the wealth there. So I think, the bulk of the carries were spread out pretty evenly and got everybody involved. And that was good for us last week."

— The Panthers still can't be sure which quarterback they're seeing this week, since Steelers rookie starter Kenny Pickett remains in the concussion protocol. If he isn't cleared, they'll either go with Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph.

If Pickett is back in the lineup, the Panthers will be trying to force turnovers, but not because of the thing that got so much attention during the pre-draft process. While Pickett's hand size was a hot topic in the spring, he's only lost one fumble this season.

Panthers defensive coordinator Al Holcomb was asked about getting the ball out in the context of Pickett's 8 1/2-inch hand size (9 inches is considered the baseline for quarterbacks) but said this is no different than any other week.

"Every week, we try to emphasize getting the ball out in terms of fumbles," Holcomb said. "You know, in the National Football League, really, the position that turns the ball over the most is the quarterback. So that's just the point of emphasis, regardless of hand size or anything like that when we're playing against quarterbacks."

The Steelers lead the all-time series against the Panthers, 6-1.

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