CHARLOTTE – In the first two preseason games, defense gave the Carolina Panthers a chance to win.
Saturday night, the offense and special teams units joined the party, allowing the Panthers to celebrate a victory.
"We came out and did some good things, and it's nice to be rewarded with a win," quarterback Matt Moore said after the Panthers took care of the Tennessee Titans 15-7 at Bank of America Stadium. "You always want to win. It feels good."
The offense didn't produce a touchdown for the third consecutive game but moved the ball better, and special teams did find the end zone -- on Mike Goodson's 91-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter that gave the Panthers the lead for good.
The defense kept doing what it had been doing, racking up seven sacks and holding the Titans to 70 yards of total offense through three quarters before Tennessee finally found some space in the fourth quarter.
In the final quarter, however, cornerback Brian Witherspoon picked off a pair of passes.
"It always feels good to win, no matter how you do it," said Witherspoon, who helped the Panthers end a seven-game losing streak in preseason games.
A week after the offense mustered just 175 yards, Moore did more than that himself over three quarters of action, hitting on 18 of 33 passes for 190 yards. Five wide receivers as well as tight end Dante Rosario caught two or more passes, and tight end Gary Barnidge got loose for a 50-yard gain on a short pass from Jimmy Clausen (4-for-5, 79 yards).
Still, the end zone eluded the offense, though rookie wide receiver Brandon LaFell was quick to point out that Goodson's primary role is as a running back.
"Goody is an offensive guy, so we felt like the offense got in," LaFell said. "Man, we wanted a touchdown so bad tonight that it's ridiculous. We got down there a couple of times but we didn't put it in.
"We need to get in there, ASAP. We can get away with it right now, but when the regular season starts, we've got to hold up our end of the bargain."
LaFell, with a sliding one-handed catch at the Tennessee 16-yard line in the final minute of the first half, set up one of the offense's scoring threats, but receiver Wallace Wright fumbled the ball near the 10 soon after and suffered a shoulder injury in the process to keep it scoreless.
"Two of our three biggest playmakers (Steve Smith and Jonathan Stewart) haven't played a snap in the preseason," head coach John Fox said. "I think we still have a lot of work to do, but I think there was improvement tonight."
The offense could get away with promising drives stopping short of the end zone because of what special teams and defense were able to do.
With punter Jason Baker again averaging more than 50 yards a punt – boosted by a 76-yarder that would have been a franchise record had it been in the regular season – the Panthers won the battle of field position. That eventually got them in place for John Kasay to boot field goals of 43 and 27 yards that gave Carolina a 6-0 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Titans, at long last, responded. They exceeded their offensive production for the first three quarters with one drive, a brisk 83-yard march that ended with former Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins hitting tight end Jared Cook for a 35-yard score and a 7-6 lead.
The lead lasted for 14 seconds.
Goodson took the ensuing kickoff and ran straight ahead, appearing to be swallowed by a pile of tacklers at the 25, but he soon emerged and scooted out toward the left sideline, going untouched the rest of the way.
"That was very big for the special teams unit," said rookie receiver Trent Guy, who took over the majority of the return duties a week after the punt return unit turned it over three times. "We didn't show up really last week on special teams, and we put more of an emphasis on it going into this game.
"I think we did a good job of that tonight."
The defense took care the rest, just as it has been taking care of business throughout the preseason. A pair of sacks by Charles Johnson helped the Panthers increase their total to 18, while their points allowed crept up to 33.
"When we're flying around like that, you definitely feel it," linebacker Dan Connor said. "It's different from any defensive system I've been in, and it's a lot of fun."
So is winning.