The Panthers' passing game has shattered expectations through the first quarter of the season, thanks in large part to the performance of rookie QB Cam Newton. Carolina's defense lags behind the highly productive offense at this point, but there are players exceeding expectations on that side of the ball, too, including CB Captain Munnerlyn.
There was concern that the Panthers would have a liability at right cornerback with the undersized Munnerlyn moving from nickel back to that spot to replace Richard Marshall, but head coach Ron Rivera has been very pleased with his play. Munnerlyn stood out to Saints head coach Sean Payton, too. Payton mentioned Munnerlyn when discussing the Panthers' defense this week ahead of New Orleans' Week Five meeting with Carolina, saying the third-year corner was having "an exceptional season."
A seventh-round pick in 2009, Munnerlyn is listed at only 5-foot-8, but he's proving to be a serviceable starter playing opposite LCB Chris Gamble, who has also quieted some doubters with his performance after a down year in '10.
The encouraging signs on defense don't end at cornerback for the Panthers.
On the defensive line, the Panthers have started their two third-round picks this year, NT Sione Fua and DT Terrell McClain, in every game. They're experiencing growing pains, as expected, but the Panthers have shown a commitment to being patient and allowing them to get some valuable experience. The defensive end tandem of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy has impressed and appears to be one of the better pass-rushing duos in the division, if not the entire NFC. The season-ending injuries suffered by starting LBs Jon Beason and Thomas Davis were devastating and have weakened the run defense. That's an area where the team is going to have to improve to be more competitive.
Rivera has likened his team in recent days to the little brother that gets picked on and beat up, but eventually grows, matures and starts doling out punishment rather than only receiving it. The Panthers' win-loss record puts them in last place in the NFC South, and the standings may not look very appealing to the team and its fans at any point this season. Whether or not, and the speed with which, the Panthers grow up remains to be seen, but Rivera's optimism isn't being dismissed as coach-speak, and that's telling.
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