The Carolina Panthers and coach Ron Rivera have won the coin toss each of the past four games, and each time put the defense on the field to start.
The first three times, the opponent didn’t score.
Sunday, in a 30-15 victory over St. Louis, Carolina went one better. Captain Munnerlyn intercepted a Sam Bradford pass and took it 45 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, giving Carolina a 7-0 lead after 21 seconds.
“It’s a huge momentum shift,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “You go out there, you try to set the tone early as a defense when you get the opportunity to take it first and at least force a three-and-out. If you can come up with a touchdown, it’s a huge momentum shift.”
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott dialed up a strong safety blitz for Quintin Mikell, who played with the Rams for two seasons before joining the Panthers. Mikell pressured Bradford and hit the quarterback’s arm, resulting in a wobbly floater that Munnerlyn had to come back to.
“I can’t take credit for it. Quintin Mikell made that play,” Munnerlyn said. “He hit the arm of Sam Bradford and it was like a punt return to me. It was floating in the air, I ended up catching it, picking it up and taking it to the house.”
Munnerlyn went to the ground on the play but got up and hurried down the Carolina sideline before getting into the end zone for a franchise-tying fourth interception returned for a touchdown.
When it was pointed out to Munnerlyn, a former Carolina punt returner, that not many punt returns start with him on the ground, as the interception did, he continued flashing his smile.
“Oh yeah, they don’t start with that, but I had enough room to get up and make a couple people miss and get in the end zone,” he said.
Young pussh: First- and second-round draft picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short had their best combined game since the Week 3 sack-fest against the Giants.
Though neither tackle sacked Bradford or his backup, Kellen Clemens, Lotulelei finished with six tackles, including two for losses.
Short had three tackles, two of which were for losses, and recovered a fourth-quarter fumble forced by Greg Hardy.
“I was very impressed with our guys up there today,” Rivera said. “Short and Star Lotulelei both played a heck of a football game. Those two young guys are really coming along, and because of that you see that (linebacker) Luke Kuechly isn’t making as many plays.
“It’s to Luke’s detriment but to our benefit. I believe Luke would take that any day of the week.”
Kuechly, who last year as a rookie led the league in tackles, had three tackles and one pass defense Sunday.
Quick turnaround: The Panthers will be facing their first short week of the season when they play at Tampa Bay on Thursday.
Several of the Carolina coaches said they wouldn’t go home immediately after the game but instead go upstairs and watch film of the Buccaneers (0-6), who lost to Atlanta on Sunday.
“It’s going to be a big challenge, but we’ve got to come to play,” defensive end Charles Johnson said. “It would be a big win for us. It’s our first division game, so there’s going to be a lot of things going through our mind. They beat us twice last year, so we’re going to try to come out and win Thursday.”
Carolina will face another short week in Week 12, when they travel to Miami after hosting the Patriots on Monday night.
Tackle Jordan Gross said he’ll being studying for the Buccaneers early Monday morning after taking care of his body following Sunday’s game.
“Super-quick turnaround,” Gross said. “I’m going to have to go get in the cold tub right now to start recovering because in four days we will be right back out on the field.”
Inactives: Two days after practicing in full pads, rookie safety Robert Lester was inactive for Sunday’s game.
Lester has been battling a hamstring injury the past two weeks that caused him to miss the Minnesota game, and Rivera didn’t want to play Lester on Sunday for fear of him suffering a setback.
“Believe me, with a short week coming up you would hate for him to come out and tweak it again, so we wanted to make sure,” Rivera said.
Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who was listed as doubtful Friday, also sat. Cornerback Josh Norman was inactive for his third consecutive game. Also inactive were wide receiver Marvin McNutt, cornerback D.J. Moore, running back Armond Smith and defensive tackle Sione Fua.
• Greg Olsen’s mother, Susan, banged the Keep Pounding drum before the game. The NFL is honoring Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and she is a survivor.
• The Panthers were in their blue jerseys for the first time this season. The NFL allows teams to wear their alternate jerseys up to two times a season. They’ll next wear them in Week 9 vs. Atlanta.
• Disney star Zendaya sang the national anthem before the game. She, like Cam Newton, is endorsed by Beats by Dre.
• Three of Graham Gano’s eight kickoffs were brought out of the end zone for a total of 73 yards. He had the best touchback percentage of any kicker in the league before the game.
By the numbers
0 Points allowed by Carolina’s defense in the first quarter of every game this year.
2 Points allowed by Carolina’s offense in the first quarter Sunday on a safety.
446 Passing yards for Cam Newton in the previous two games.
8 Rushing plays out of 15 carries for zero or negative yards for DeAngelo Williams.
• “I’m disappointed Chris (Long) made the decision that he did. He should not ever put himself in the position where he’s watching the game from the locker room.” – Rams coach Jeff Fisher
• “I’ll let Janoris Jenkins go over it on film on Monday.” – Panthers WR Steve Smith
• “But when you get hit like that, it kind of reminds me of getting in a car accident. You’ve got to stop just to see if everything’s OK. Your toe’s moving, ankle’s moving, knee’s moving, back, neck. All right, I’m good..” – Panthers QB Cam Newton
• “Coincidentally, every time I’ve played one of (Jeff Fisher’s) teams they’ve been like that. They show that on film. Especially defensively, they’ve got good young players and a lot of times when you face good, young players comes that certain chippiness. – Panthers LT Jordan Gross
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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