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Raised voices in locker room elevate Panthers’ play after halftime

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DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was upset with his team’s play in the first half, leading to raised voices in the locker room at halftime. But Rivera said what pleased him was the tone of those voices, and that they weren’t all the usual suspects.

There were a lot of raised voices in the Panthers’ locker room at halftime Sunday at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, beginning with that of coach Ron Rivera.

But what most impressed Rivera was not the volume of those speaking, but the variety of players who spoke up with the Panthers trailing by 10 after a lackluster first half.

In addition to the usual veterans such as wide receiver Steve Smith – who said he wanted the ball more in the second half – others starters, such as center Ryan Kalil and defensive end Greg Hardy, addressed their teammates.

The Panthers (8-3) looked like a different team in the second half, shutting out the Dolphins and rallying for a 20-16 victory to run their winning streak to a franchise record-tying seven games.

A day later, Rivera said it was good to hear other leaders emerging for a team that already has surpassed the win totals from Rivera’s first two seasons.

“Part of coming together and being a team is not having to rely on just one leader. It’s relying on a group of men that can come together and take ownership,” Rivera said Monday. “That was kind of interesting to see. I think that’s part of the maturing process that we’ve gone through.”

Rivera said he’s glad the Panthers no longer are turning to one or two players to provide the vocal leadership.

“It’s real easy to look at the quarterback and say, you’ve got to make all the plays,” Rivera said. “It’s real easy to always have (veteran left tackle) Jordan Gross get up and say something that meant something. Now you’re starting to see the different guys. You see the Kalils. You see the Greg Hardys. I think that’s important because now the responsibility is not just one person. It’s the whole unit.”

Observing locker-room code, Rivera would not reveal the specific messages players shared Sunday.

But the fiery Hardy said he told the defensive linemen their first-half performance wasn’t good enough, especially in the absence of defensive end Charles Johnson.

Johnson, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks, missed the game with a sprained knee.

“I was thinking about Chuck in the first half and how (ticked) he would be if he were rushing,” Hardy said. “I lost my cool a little bit just because that’s not us. That’s not something Chuck would be proud of. That’s not something Coach is proud of. When somebody asks us to do something on this team, we step up. And that’s what we did.”

After sacking the Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill once in the first half, the Panthers increased their pressure in the second half, sacking him twice and hitting him on several other plays.

“Because Charles was out, and Charles is a little bit of an emotional leader as well, I think Greg felt a need to step up, (including) what he said in the locker room, too, at halftime,” Rivera said. “There were some things that were really interesting in that locker room at halftime. Guys said things, and they challenged each other. That was outstanding.”

Kalil, voted a captain for the first time this season, was disappointed in the play of the offensive line in the first half. Kalil said missed assignments up front led to empty, three-and-out possessions and good field position for the Dolphins’ offense.

“Not a good first half for us. But bright side, I’ll take an ugly win, especially a late win,” Kalil said. “I think it’s good for us in the long run.”

Smith was targeted four times in the second half – same as the first half – and came up with the game’s biggest play when he caught a pass from Cam Newton, split a double-team and gained 19 yards to convert a fourth-and-10 on the game-winning drive.

Smith said he thought the Panthers came out “lazy” against a Dolphins team that entered with a 5-5 record and has been embroiled in a bullying scandal.

“We underestimated that team,” Smith said. “They’re a good team. They’ve got a great defense. Their D-line was pinning their ears back and coming. We didn’t expect that, I don’t think. So we had to improve and improve quickly because it was getting ugly.”

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, one of the first-half goats after giving up two long completions to wideout Mike Wallace, accepted blame for the blown coverage during the defense’s halftime meeting.

Munnerlyn wound up leading the team with a career-high nine tackles.

“He took full responsibility at halftime, and that to me just speaks volumes about our team,” defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “Guys are stepping up, being accountable and then mentally tough and physically tough enough to move forward and finish the game in a strong fashion.

“That’s exactly what (he) did, and I couldn’t be prouder of him for it.”

Rivera was happy to share the floor with players. But the popular, third-year coach still has the last word.

“I still said what I had to say,” Rivera said. “Believe me, I get my time, and I’m going to use it.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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