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Punt-turned-touchdown among the "catastrophic mistakes"

Johnny Hekker

NEW ORLEANS – It was clear from the beginning that points were going to be hard to come by in the Panthers' Week 14 meeting with the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon in the Caesars Superdome.

Neither team scored in the first quarter, and the Saints were clinging to a 7-3 lead as halftime approached.

That's when the New Orleans punt return team did something the Carolina offense would be unable to do the entire game – score a touchdown.

Nephi Sewell slipped through the Panthers' blockers and swatted the ball into the ground as Johnny Hekker attempted to punt. Fellow linebacker D'Marco Jackson picked it up and sprinted 8 yards for a touchdown.

That score gave the Saints a bit of breathing room and served as a pivotal moment in New Orleans' 28-6 victory.

"We knew they were going to bring pressure," Hekker said afterward. "I got hit pretty quickly. I've got to work on getting the ball off quicker to help the guys out."

Though Hekker was willing to share the blame for the breakdown, Sewell came through unblocked and was on top of Hekker almost immediately as two blockers doubled the Saints' outside rusher, leaving a gaping hole for Sewell.

"We didn't block the guy we were supposed to block," said interim head coach Chris Tabor, who was selected to succeed Frank Reich two weeks ago, partly because of the reliability of the special teams that he has coordinated this season and last.

The botched punt was one of a few plays that Tabor characterized as "catastrophic mistakes."

Long snapper JJ Jansen said Carolina had "a right-side protection," and the Saints didn't do "anything radical" on the play, which was "100-percent" a self-inflicted wound.

Hekker quipped that the Panthers need to "start wearing steel-toed shoes for the number of times we've shot ourselves in the foot."

Jansen said the punt breakdown was especially disappointing because Carolina, like New Orleans, has one of the better special teams units in the NFL.

Tabor has coordinated NFL special teams since 2011, and Saints special teams coordinator/assistant head coach Darren Rizzi has done the same since 2010. Both have perennially led units that are among the best in the NFL.

"I was looking forward to the matchup," Jansen said. "Rizzi's group and Tabor's group battling blow for blow."

Jansen said he thought the Panthers "got the better" of the Saints on special teams in the first meeting, even though New Orleans won 20-17 in Charlotte in the second game of the season.

In that game, Hekker and the Saints' Lou Hedley both punted five times and had two punts downed inside the 20. But Hekker had no touchbacks, Hedley had one, and Hekker averaged 47.8 yards, while Hedley averaged 42.0.

But on Sunday, the one botched punt meant "they got us," Jansen said.

The special teams touchdown was originally ruled a blocked punt and return, but later in the game it was officially ruled a fumble and a fumble return.

"My assumption," Jensen said, "is that they're saying the ball was tipped or touched before it hit Johnny's foot."

Tabor wasn't interested in any distinctions as to whether it was a block or a fumble.

"To me, it's a blocked punt," he said. "They scored off of it."

Regardless of what it's called, the play dug a deeper hole that Carolina was never able to climb out of, even though the Panthers trailed just 14-6 well into the fourth quarter.

"The defense did an outstanding job of keeping us in it," Tabor said. "We went into the fourth quarter with an opportunity. We just didn't get it done."

The seven points that the punt play provided to the Saints loomed over a game in which the Panthers' one-two punch of Chuba Hubbard (87 yards) and Miles Sanders (74) led a rushing attack that totaled 204 yards, and the Carolina defense limited Derek Carr to 37 passing yards before wearing down and allowing 82 on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that provided a misleading final score.

Hekker, who hobbled off the field after being hit by Sewell on the block-turned-fumble and received treatment on his right leg after the game, quipped that he hoped the change to a fumble designation "doesn't hurt my rushing stats."

But then he turned serious.

"It's disappointing on a lot of different levels," Hekker added. "It cost us a chance in the game."

A game that left the Panthers 1-12.

View all the action from the Panthers' game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 14.

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