CHARLOTTE – The Panthers have reached the halfway point of the season with some subpar statistics on special teams.
Some are in need of improvement, while others are open to interpretation.
Carolina ranks 29th in both kickoff return average and punt return average, with a pair of young wide receivers currently holding down the duties: rookie Kealoha Pilares on kickoffs and second-year player Armanti Edwards on punts.
"I'd like to see us improve in terms of our return game," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "This is really the first opportunity Kealoha has had to be a kick returner. It is a little bit of a work in progress, but he is a former running back who became a wide receiver and has tremendous run-after-catch numbers. We knew he can run with the ball.
"With Armanti, we saw what he can do in the preseason. The other part of it is that guys have to block, have to give them a chance. We're not necessarily always doing the job."
The Panthers are 29th in kickoff return average at 21.0 yards, but a 24.0-yard average would put them in the top half of the league. Last Sunday against Minnesota, Pilares had a season-long 27-yard return and appeared to be one broken tackle away from possibly taking it the distance.
Carolina is also 29th in punt returns with a 5.5-yard average, but part of that can be explained by their concerted effort to be aggressive. Only four teams have fewer than the Panthers' five fair catches, and that willingness to try to return almost any punt leads to more short returns.
The kickoff coverage unit slipped toward the bottom of the pack with Minnesota's 78-yard return to open Sunday's game, while the punt coverage unit was already there.
Punter Jason Baker ranks 32nd in the NFL in gross punting average at 40.4 yards and 35th in net punting average at 34.2 yards.
Those numbers, however, aren't a fair reflection of Baker's overall performance.
"We're not punting out of holes for the most part," Rivera said. "And when you get to the 50, we're using a rugby style where we're trying to down it. Jason understands what we need to get done."
In other words, the success of the offense often translates to Baker punting on a short field, clearly a factor in his gross average. He is tied for ninth in the league with 12 punts inside thee 20.
As for his net average, opponents have only returned 11 of Baker's 31 punts, the fifth-fewest opponent returns in the league. However, two of the returns went for touchdowns, causing Baker's net average to suffer.
Those two touchdowns came over the first four games of the season. Last week, the Vikings managed a total of two yards on three returns.
"Those guys are starting to gel, to come together," Rivera said. "They're doing some things better and better."
GOOD SIGNS: The bye week allowed Pilares, Edwards and rookie wide receiver Darvin Adams – a practice squad player - the opportunity to shine in practice Tuesday and Wednesday as many veterans rested.
On defense, Rivera liked what he saw from defensive end Thomas Keiser – another practice squad player – as well cornerbacks R.J. Stanford and Brandon Hogan. Stanford has gotten some playing time of late, while Hogan could be activated from the Physically Unable to Perform list next weeke when the team returns from its four-day break.
The performance of the defense as a whole during a period of re-evaluation, and the enthusiasm shown by everybody during a short work week delighted Rivera.
"We were very pleased with what happened yesterday and today. It was really exciting for me as a defensive coach in watching how they handled the adjustments that we're making," he said. "At 2-6, it might be easy to just go through the motions, but this group isn't doing that.
"They've come ready to practice, ready to work, and that's a tribute to them. They recognize our situation and that we're going through a process, and they're handling that really well."
LINEBACKER UPDATE: When the Panthers return to action Nov. 13 at home against the Tennessee Titans, Rivera isn't yet sure who the top backups at linebacker will be behind starters James Anderson, Dan Connor and Omar Gaither.
"It's a day-to-day thing," Rivera said. "With Jason Phillips and the way the calf is, they're concerned that it could be a two, three, four-week thing. It just depends on how it heals up. With Thomas Williams' neck, they've got to continue to evaluate that. It could be a few more days before we have any ideas there."
The 53-man roster could look different this time next week regardless of what happens with the injured linebackers because of the possibility of Hogan being activated. If any linebackers need to be added, the practice squad includes second-year pro Kion Wilson – who played for Rivera in San Diego last season – as well as rookie Lawrence Wilson.
RICHARDSON RECOGNIZED: Panthers founder/owner Jerry Richardson's name obviously is synonymous with pro football in the Charlotte region. Now, his name his attached to college football as well.
When the Charlotte 49ers debut their football program in 2013, they'll play their home games on McColl-Richardson Field, named such in recognition of the financial support provided by Richardson as well as former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl.
Richardson and McColl have teamed up before, as evidenced by the name of the Panthers' home: Bank of America Stadium.
"It is quite an honor to have my name associated with such a good friend and wonderful academic institution," Richardson said. "Hugh and I both feel that UNC Charlotte is critical to the future of the Charlotte region. College football will be an important component in student life and will help the university create stronger community ties."
The university broke ground on the 15,000-seat stadium in April and are currently selling Football Seats Licenses, another concept that Richardson can relate to as a forerunner in the offering of Permanent Seat Licenses.