Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s coming-out party in the desert was crashed by another rookie enjoying his own “Hello, World” moment.
Patrick Peterson’s 89-yard punt return for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter of the 2011 season opener spoiled Newton’s record-setting passing debut and lifted Arizona to a 28-21 win at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Two years later, with the Panthers preparing to play at Arizona again, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he knows a lot more about Peterson – and his own punt team – this time around.
“I think the big thing is personnel, and understanding what we’re doing here a little bit better. That was our opener. This one’s different,” Rivera said. “We know our guys a little bit more. And people know Patrick a little bit more. He’s a dynamic football player. For all the things they do with him, that’s probably one of the more scary ones.”
The Panthers have a new special teams coordinator and only two members of the punt team remaining from their opening-week roster in 2011 – long-snapper J.J. Jansen and backup linebacker Jordan Senn.
Peterson’s return was a sign of things to come for both Peterson, the fifth overall pick from LSU in ’11, and the Panthers’ punt team.
Peterson, a cornerback who also has taken snaps on offense this season, tied an NFL season-single season record in ’11 with four punt returns for touchdowns. He matched a mark held by three other players, including the Bears’ Devin Hester.
Meanwhile, the Panthers allowed two more punt returns for touchdowns that season – a 69-yarder by Hester and a 79-yarder by Tennessee’s Marc Mariani. All three came in Panthers’ losses.
A day after Denver’s Trindon Holliday returned a punt for a 76-yard touchdown last season against the Panthers – another Carolina loss – Rivera fired special teams coordinator Brian Murphy.
He replaced him with assistant special teams coach Richard Rodgers, Rivera’s teammate at Cal who, according to Panthers’ special teams players, allows them to play with more abandon than Murphy.
“I think guys feel like they can take a risk to make a play. I think that’s the biggest thing, not so restricted,” said Senn, a special teams mainstay since 2009. “In our special teams group, I think it’s an understanding of you’ve got to follow the rules, but sometimes you’ve just got to be a football player.”
Rodgers, who is assisted by longtime NFL special teams coach Bruce DeHaven, wants his coverage team to err on the side of aggression.
“I’m the kind of guy who wants guys to go down and make plays, and I don’t think you can be afraid to do that,” Rodgers said. “Sometimes as coaches we get to a point where we’re so determined to get our point across and we get our players to be robotic, and we don’t want that. ... We just want you to go make the tackle.”
Senn had the best shot at tackling Peterson two years ago, but Peterson bounced off his diving attempt and went untouched the rest of the way for the decisive score with 7 minutes, 15 seconds remaining.
“I should have made the tackle on him. I hit him right in the hip,” Senn said this week. “If I would’ve stayed on my feet, I probably would have been able to make it. But he’s a strong runner.”
But miscues by outside gunners Jordan Pugh and Mike Goodson were the keys to the play. With the score tied at 21, punter Jason Baker tried a rugby-style kick from the Arizona 47 designed to pin the Cardinals deep.
Thinking Peterson was going to call for a fair catch, both Pugh and Goodson ran past him to get in position to down the ball if Peterson didn’t field it. There was talk on the Panthers sideline that Peterson had begun to signal for a fair catch.
“I remember people thought he had a half-wave. I never saw anything. I didn’t see it on film because we went through it pretty quick,” Senn said. “I remember after the play people being like, ‘Oh, I thought it was a fair catch.’ But now we’ve got a different special teams coach – coach Rodgers and different guys out there. He’s telling us to make plays, not over-coaching things.”
“That was a situation where you’re typically expecting a guy to fair-catch it. But he’s a little bit of a risk-taker,” Jansen said of Peterson. “He’s a really good ball-handler. He’s very comfortable back there. That’s one of those things where you probably need to err on the side of caution. If you give up a touchback because you’re worried about him returning the ball, then that might be something you do.”
Punt coverage improving
The Panthers’ punt coverage team has improved under Rodgers. After finishing 30th in opponents’ punt return average (13.3 yards) in 2011, the Panthers were 10th (8.6 yards) last season.
Carolina is near the bottom of the coverage statistics this year, with opponents averaging 11.2 yards per return. But the figure is skewed by a small sample size: The Panthers have had only six returns against them, with a long of 22 yards.
Rodgers didn’t specify the Panthers’ strategy against Peterson. But he said second-year punter Brad Nortman, tied for 14th with a net punting average of 40.5 yards, and the coverage team have been in sync.
“There’s great returners in the league and we know that. If you’re going to kick the ball to them and they’re going to have an opportunity to return, you better dang well get down there and do your job,” Rodgers said. “I think our guys have a good understanding of what we’re trying to do week in and week out. They’re doing pretty good and our punter’s been pretty good, so we’re going to do the same thing.”
Panthers gunner Colin Jones faced Peterson twice in 2011 when Jones was with San Francisco, which kept Peterson in check. Jones found a picture on his phone this week showing a pile of six 49ers players, including Jones, stacked on top of Peterson after a run-back.
“That’s how you’ve got to do it,” Jones said. “Just gang-tackle and everybody get to the football.”
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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