Defense carries Carolina Panthers past Baltimore Ravens, 34-27

jperson@charlotteobserver.comAugust 22, 2013 

— The Panthers’ first-team offense again couldn’t 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.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera planned to use Ginn on a punt return last week at Philadelphia, but the Eagles never punted in the first half. Rivera also 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 Koch’s 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 Baltimore’s free kick to midfield before being tackled as time expired in the Ravens’ 34-31 victory.

The Panthers haven’t 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 all good for the Panthers.

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’s six drives resulted in two field goals and four punts. The Panthers’ first-team offense has one touchdown in 14 preseason series – an 18-yard drive after a takeaway against Chicago two weeks ago.

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) as the Panthers (33).

The Panthers’ defense proved to be their best offense.

Second-year middle linebacker Luke Kuechly demonstrated again he is one of the game’s 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.

The interception came a play after Kuechly 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 Kuechly’s forearm in the vicinity of Mellette’s head.

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

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