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Rivera defends coach of struggling special teams

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)

The Carolina Panthers have no return game to speak of, their high-priced kicker is struggling with accuracy issues and their coverage teams have allowed three punt returns for touchdowns - one shy of tying an NFL record.

Coach Ron Rivera said he isn't putting the blame on first-year special teams coordinator Brian Murphy. The coordinator has come under fire from a frustrated fan base after a series of special teams miscues this season.

Rivera staunchly defended Murphy at Monday's press conference, a strong indication he won't be making any changes to his staff.

When asked if he's satisfied with the job Murphy has done, Rivera said, ''Don't ask that because I am satisfied, OK? That's not a fair question.''

Rivera pointed to the team's numerous injuries - the Panthers have 11 players on injured reserve - as having a trickle-down effect on the poor play of the special teams. Backups have been forced to become starters, which means players who were normally third string have been forced into special teams duty.

''We haven't started the same group on defense, for the most part, and haven't started the same guys on special teams because of that,'' Rivera said. ''When you're moving guys constantly from being backups to starters you're taking guys off of what they normally should be doing. That's just not fair (to Murphy). It really isn't... You're put at a huge disadvantage.''

Murphy declined interview requests Monday.

Next up for the Panthers is road game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday.

Carolina's latest special teams blunder Sunday seemed to set the tone in 30-3 loss to Tennessee.

After Carolina's offense went three-and-out on its first possession, the Titans' Marc Mariani returned a Jason Baker punt 79 yards - untouched - for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The Titans would score on their first offensive possession a short time later, a 43-yard pass from Matt Hasselbeck to Damian Williams and the Panthers would never recover.

''You can't have those mistakes,'' Rivera said.

Mariani's return was the third punt return touchdown allowed this season by the Panthers, bringing them within one of tying an NFL record. Only the 1959 New York Giants, '92 Atlanta Falcons and '08 Minnesota Vikings have allowed more punt return touchdowns (four each) than the Panthers, according to STATS LLC.

All three touchdown returns have contributed to Carolina losses.

In the season opener Arizona rookie Patrick Peterson broke a 21-21 tie with an 89-yard punt return in the fourth quarter to lift the Cardinals to a 28-21 win. Three weeks later the Panthers made the ill-advised decision to try a rugby style punt to Chicago's Devin Hester, who promptly returned it 69 yards for a touchdown. The Panthers would go on to lose that game 34-29.

Like its punt coverage team, Carolina's kickoff coverage team ranks near the bottom of the league having surrendered returns of 78 yards to Minnesota's Marcus Sherels and 73 yards to Hester.

''It's about people not getting into their lanes,'' said Kealoha Pilares, a member of the Panthers' punt team. ''I think we have to do a better job with that. You have to get in your lane and contain the returns and not let them get an edge.''

On the flip side, Carolina's return teams have been virtually non-existent.

The Panthers are 29th in the league in both kickoff and punt returns. Their longest kickoff return of the season is 31 yards and their best return is 14 yards.

As if all of that isn't enough, veteran kicker Olindo Mare is suddenly struggling, too.

Mare, who signed a four-year, $12 million contract to replace John Kasay, missed a 31-yard field goal against Minnesota before the bye week that would have tied the game with 26 seconds left. Instead the Panthers lost 24-21.

Mare also missed on a 50-yard field goal Sunday just before halftime and ranks 27th in the league in field goal accuracy having converted 14 of 18 on the season.

NOTES: Tight end Jeremy Shockey will have an MRI on his side this week after taking a hit on the first play of Sunday's game against Tennessee. Shockey briefly went to the locker room and while he managed to return to the game he only saw limited action. ... Linebacker Dan Connor has a neck stinger and will be reevaluated on Wednesday. ... Center Ryan Kalil injured his wrist Sunday, but did return to the game.

Tagged: Titans, Panthers, Olindo Mare, Marc Mariani

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