CHARLOTTE – A pair of Panthers who made their first starts of the season Sunday combined to make some of the more pivotal plays in Carolina's 24-23 loss at Cleveland.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown, and he also had a shot at returning a punt for a touchdown. Linebacker Jason Williams forced and recovered a fumble to thwart what was looking a lot like a touchdown drive for the Browns.
Munnerlyn, starting in place of Chris Gamble, stepped in front of a Jake Delhomme pass early in the second half and returned it 37 yards untouched to pull the Panthers within 21-20.
In the final two minutes of the first half, Munnerlyn returned a punt 32 yards to set up a field goal, but he could well have scored on that play as well.
"My teammates were talking on the sideline, saying my punt return should have gone for a touchdown. I had the whole left side, but I cut back right," said Munnerlyn, who had a much more straightforward path on the interception. "I saw the ball and just broke for it, and then all I saw was daylight."
While Munnerlyn's plays helped get Carolina back in the game, Williams' play helped them hang around. The Browns were on the verge of scoring touchdowns on each of their first three drives when tight end Evan Moore caught a pass around the 5-yard line, but Williams – starting for Nic Harris – stripped the ball and recovered it.
"I thought he did some good things," head coach John Fox said. "Like most new guys, he'll get better and better. He made some plays in the kicking game as well as on defense."
Fox said Monday that the decision to start Munnerlyn over the seven-year veteran Gamble, who had started 42 consecutive games, was based on performance.
"He was struggling a little bit, and we made the change," Fox said. "We still have high regard for Chris Gamble. He did play close to 30 plays in the game even though he didn't start. We'll continue that evaluation process moving forward."
Starting Williams gave the team a chance to get an extended look at the former third-round draft choice. Williams was claimed off waivers from the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 3 and contributed primarily on special teams in his first two games with the Panthers.
"I thought he did a pretty good job," Fox said. "Nic (Harris) played first after we lost Dan Connor (to a season-ending hip injury). We'll continue to evaluate that."
ROOKIE ROUNDUP: While some new faces made their mark, some familiar but still-fresh faces continue to improve as well.
"I've seen outstanding growth in a lot of those guys," Fox said, referring to the team's group of young skill-position players. "There are obviously areas that we need to improve in, but I saw some growth."
Quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receiver Cam Newton – both rookies – had solid showings in their return from concussions that cost them a game apiece. They hooked up on an impressive 28-yard pass play with five seconds left that got Carolina in position for a game-winning field goal attempt.
"I'm trying to take a step each and every week," Clausen said. "Coach Fox has told me to keep going out and keep getting better each week, just keep progressing. There are obviously going to be plays that I wish I could have made, but that's just the way it goes."
RUSHING ROUNDUP: Second-year running back Mike Goodson had another good game – rushing for 55 yards and catching eight balls for 81 yards – and Christian McCaffrey impressed in his return.
Stewart, who had missed two games with a concussion, gained 98 yards on just 12 carries.
The duo helped Carolina churn out a season-high 151 yards on the ground.
"It was good to have that one-two punch in there," Fox said. "I thought having Jonathan Stewart back was a real spark, and Mike Goodson has done a terrific job.
"I think we've had the same starters on the offensive line for a little bit of period of time. Any time you run the ball well, the blocking element has a lot to do with it."