BALTIMORE The Panthers first-team offense again couldnt get in the end zone.
It didn't have to. Punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. and an opportunistic defense took care of that.
In a weird game that was televised nationally Thursday night, the Panthers had four returns for touchdowns to overcome an underwhelming offensive performance in a 34-27 win against Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium.
The NFL does not keep records for exhibitions, but the four returns felt like some type of milestone. The Panthers have never had two defensive touchdowns in a regular-season game in their 18-year history.
They had three against the reigning Super Bowl champions interception returns by cornerbacks Drayton Florence (71 yards) and D.J. Moore (33 yards), and a 2-yard fumble return by linebacker Thomas Davis.
Those followed a 74-yard punt return by Ginn, the free-agent acquisition who had been kept under wraps during the first two exhibitions.
I think Ted Ginn did a great job of getting the game going for us. He went out there and scored and got a spark into everybody. And then the defense went out and took care of business, said rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who had a sack and three tackles for loss.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera planned to use Ginn on punt return last week at Philadelphia, but the Eagles never punted during the first half. Rivera was trying to reduce the risk of injury to Ginn while the Panthers figured out who their best special teams blockers were.
It looked like sound strategy when Ginn fielded Sam Kochs punt, shook off an ankle tackle attempt, and sprinted the rest of the way untouched on his first return as a Panther.
Today was the first time I got a live punt. I just did what I do in practice, get the ball and get upfield, Ginn said. Without my other 10 guys I was nothing. I made a guy miss, but everybody picked up a block and got on their man.
Ginn's last return before Thursday was at the end of Super Bowl XLVII in February. Ginn, then with San Francisco, took Baltimores free kick to midfield before being tackled as time expired in the Ravens 34-31 victory.
The Panthers havent scored on a punt return in a regular-season game since 2003, when Steve Smith went 53 yards against the Giants.
The news was not as good for the Panthers offense.
Quarterback Cam Newton was under duress most of the night, getting sacked three times and hurried on several other plays. Newton completed 10 of 19 passes for 99 yards, and had a 67.7 quarterback rating.
Newton said he was not pleased with his performance.
When the defense plays like that, I feel like we let those guys down, Newton said.
Newtons six drives resulted in two field goals and four punts. The Panthers first-team offense has gone more than two games without a touchdown, spanning 12 possessions since a first-quarter touchdown against Chicago two weeks ago.
That was the lone touchdown drive in 14 exhibition series and it covered just 18 yards after a takeaway. The other possessions have produced eight punts, four field goals and a Newton interception that was returned for a touchdown.
When the starters departed after three quarters, the Ravens had outgained Carolina 290 to 104 and had run nearly twice as many plays 62-33.
When you score (four) touchdowns on defense and special teams, the offense doesnt get back out there. The opportunities are limited, Rivera said. Now having said that, (3.5) yards on average (per) offensive play is not good enough. Not in this league, if we expect to win football games. We cannot accept that.
Rivera lamented the dropped passes and missed blocks, and said they will be addressed and corrected.
The Panthers defense proved to be their best offense. Second-year middle linebacker Luke Kuechly demonstrated again he is one of the games emerging stars.
Kuechly forced the fumble on Davis touchdown, drilling running back Bernard Pierce and knocking the ball loose. Kuechly, the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, had seven first-half tackles and an interception of Joe Flacco.
Weve had quite a few turnovers in each game and thats huge for us, Kuechly said. Any time you can score 21 points on defense and score a touchdown on special teams, hopefully you can get a win from that.
Kuechlys interception came two plays after he was penalized for unnecessary roughness on an apparent interception by safety Charles Godfrey. Kuechly had a big hit on receiver Aaron Mellette to cause the turnover.
Officials belatedly waved off the play. Television replays appeared to show Kuechlys forearm in the vicinity of Mellettes head.
Kuechly said he didnt ask for a ruling.
It was one of those things, I thought we were good off the field. And then they overturn it or whatever, Kuechly said. I got back on and was trying to get everybody calmed down and ready to go. The calls made and you can't really do much about it.
Its uncertain what Rivera can do to kick-start the offense. A hamstring injury to left guard Amini Silatolu forced the line to try different combinations.
Receiver David Gettis, who had been in the midst of a good preseason, was among those who couldn't hang on to the ball.
I told the guys, I appreciate the fact that we came out and played against the world champs and did some really good things, Rivera said. But some things werent good enough. Its good enough to win, but also good enough to get beat.
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