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Panthers’ Captain Munnerlyn takes slight to heart, ball to end zone

There was plenty of irony in cornerback Captain Munnerlyn’s fourth-quarter interception against the Jets in Carolina’s 30-20 victory on Sunday.

On third down, with the score 23-13, Munnerlyn stepped in front Santonio Holmes, the receiver who, earlier in the week, had called the Panthers’ secondary the defense’s “weakest link.”

Munnerlyn intercepted the pass and then slung Holmes off before going 41 yards for a touchdown.

It was the bow on Munnerlyn’s best game of the season on a night in which he broke the franchise record for most interceptions returned for a touchdown and also had two sacks.

“I’ve never been called out like that before,” Munnerlyn said. “I have never been a part of nothing like that. If you think that, I never heard nobody say it. And he went out publicly and he said it.

“I’m the laid back guy in the group. I took it personal. I was fired up when I got to the stadium. I couldn’t wait to play.

“Maybe I need to get a little geeked before the game more.”

On Thursday, Holmes called out the Panthers’ defensive backfield as the weakest part of the league’s No. 2-ranked defense.

Munnerlyn heard about those comments later Thursday shortly after Holmes made them. On Friday when asked about Holmes, Munnerlyn offered a chuckle before taking the high road in his response.

It was a night of redemption for Munnerlyn, who had a tough stretch of recent games. He gave up two deep passes against Miami in Week 12 and was part of a defensive backfield that gave up 313 yards to Drew Brees and the Saints last week.

Holmes’ comments stung following the loss to the Saints, but Munnerlyn and other defensive backs vowed to do their talking on the field.

“The last guy to call someone out like that was (St. Louis cornerback) Janoris Jenkins, and you saw what (Steve Smith) did to him,” cornerback Drayton Florence said. “If we listen to what everybody says going into a game that means we’re not focused. But when the opposing wide receiver calls us out, he’s got to pay for it. I think he had two catches. He’s really not a factor.”

Holmes finished with two catches on eight targets for 14 yards. In fact, Munnerlyn’s pick-six gave him two touchdowns on the season, one more than Holmes.

“It’s football,” Holmes said after the game about his earlier comments. “If you don’t have a little talk on the football field they you’re not ready to play the game. I think both sides were ready to play the game. We had a few mistakes out there that they ended up capitalizing on throughout the game.”

His fifth career interception for a touchdown broke the franchise record held by Mike Minter.

“I think because I used to be a punt returner, every time I get the ball I always think about scoring,” Munnerlyn said. “Every time I get it, I score. I got seven interceptions in my career, five for a touchdown. I think that’s a pretty good ratio.”

Munnerlyn was also the benefactor of more aggressive play-calling by defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. He said after the game he didn’t know McDermott would blitz as much as he did, but Munnerlyn got a career-high two sacks out of it.

He whiffed on Jets quarterback Geno Smith on his first try in the first quarter, but got him on the second try when Dwan Edwards pushed Smith back in the pocket. Munnerlyn got Smith a second time on a blind-side hit to begin the third quarter.

But Munnerlyn’s signature play was the interception, which he said was made all the better because it came against Holmes. The receiver usually spreads his airs and imitates flying like a jet when he scores a touchdown.

Munnerlyn imitated the celebration, and then crashed. Florence rushed over to apply CPR to his teammate.

“He laid out there, but I had to bring him back to life because once we score on defense we got to go right back out on the field,” Florence said.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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