New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers, 1 p.m. Sunday, FOX

At 5-8, Panthers’ Captain Munnerlyn manages to stand tall

jperson@charlotteobserver.comDecember 21, 2013 

During a photo shoot Friday at Bank of America Stadium, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn stood side-by-side, smiling and posing for the camera.

After several shots, Rivera playfully took a football and held it above his head, out of the reach of the 5-foot-8 Munnerlyn.

Munnerlyn went along with the gag, reaching up for the ball while an Observer photographer fired off a few more frames.

The scene served as a microcosm of the relationship between Munnerlyn and Rivera, whose mutual respect has been apparent since Rivera took over for John Fox before the 2011 season.

Rivera likes the tenacity of his undersized corner, whom he compared to a terrier this year at training camp at Wofford, home of the Terriers.

Rivera is not afraid to challenge Munnerlyn, whether it’s having him kick field goals at the end of a training camp practice with a day off in the balance or telling him to pick up his play after Munnerlyn’s rough day against Miami wideout Mike Wallace in Week 12.

Munnerlyn, a seventh-round pick from South Carolina in 2009, is coming off one of the best games of his career. He had two sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown last week in the Panthers’ 30-20 win against the New York Jets.

But Munnerlyn and his defensive teammates will be challenged again Sunday, this time by New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns in the Saints’ 31-13 win against Carolina two weeks ago.

It was the only loss for the Panthers (10-4) over a 10-game stretch that has vaulted them into the thick of the NFC playoff chase.

They can clinch their first playoff berth in five years and put themselves in position to win the division and earn a first-round playoff bye with a win Sunday. The Saints (10-4) would clinch the division by beating the Panthers.

With so much at stake, Munnerlyn said he’ll be ready.

“(Rivera) always challenges me, and I always challenge him back. It just grew over the years,” Munnerlyn said. “He said he looks at me as one of his little dogs. Just go out there and hunt for him and play football and do everything I’m capable of doing and make plays.”

‘Little man syndrome’

When Rivera arrived in Charlotte in January 2011, he knew Munnerlyn more as a punt returner than a cornerback. Munnerlyn was the Panthers’ primary punt returner his first two seasons, and played mostly nickel back in the secondary.

Munnerlyn didn’t know much about Rivera, either, and was admittedly a little nervous about playing for a new coach.

“I was like, coach Fox drafted me and I don’t know how this guy’s going to feel about me. I met him and he talked to me a little bit,” Munnerlyn said. “I came in for training camp – we didn’t have OTAs because it was a lockout year. He showed us his defensive schemes, how he was going to do things, how he was going to win his way.

“Everybody bought into it. A couple years later, look where we are.”

Rivera noticed Munnerlyn’s feistiness – Munnerlyn calls it “little man syndrome” – right away, and looked for ways to push him because he liked how he would respond.

The challenges work both ways.

When Rivera made a joke about Munnerlyn at training camp last summer, Munnerlyn challenged him to a game of P-I-G on the Nerf hoop players had set up in the locker room at Wofford.

“Coach, you can’t beat me,” Munnerlyn said.

“OK,” Rivera said. “It’s on.”

But Rivera didn’t just show up on the scheduled day of the P-I-G game – played in front of the team – and try to throw in a couple of hook shots.

“Every chance I’d get when I’d walk by that little basket that they had, I’d grab the ball and take a couple shots and practice a couple (trick) shots,” said the 6-foot-3 Rivera, who played nine NFL seasons. “I found out that any shot I had to use my height advantage over him I could do, and took advantage of it. And that’s how I beat him.”

Munnerlyn had a different view.

“He cheated. And you can tell him I said it. He did stuff he knew I couldn’t do,” Munnerlyn said. “He used his height against me. He was knocking the ball off his head, banking it. I couldn’t jump (per the agreed-upon rules), so I had to try to hit it up like that.”

Rivera turned it into a teaching moment.

“There’s no way I was losing this game,” Rivera told the team, “because I scouted my opponent, I found out what my opponent’s weakness was and I attacked it.”

Munnerlyn got the message.

“He studied me, he knew stuff I couldn’t do. It was embarrassing. I lost in front of the whole team,” Munnerlyn said. “And everybody was like, ‘C’mon Cap.’ I lost to the head coach.”

Rivera gave him a shot at redemption later in training camp. Munnerlyn had three tries to make a 12-yard field goal and give the team the rest of the day off.

Munnerlyn missed the first try before sneaking the second attempt over the crossbar. His teammates threw their arms in the air and cheered.

A bigger challenge

But it hasn’t always been laughs and giggles between Munnerlyn and Rivera.

When Munnerlyn gave up two long receptions to Miami’s Wallace last month, Rivera told the media the next week he was throwing open the competition at corner. Practice-squad player De’Andre Presley was even given first-team reps.

Munnerlyn held on to the starting job, and two weeks later was part of the so-called Legion of Whom secondary that Brees picked apart at the Superdome.

Rivera believes Munnerlyn is at his best at nickel, where he’s matched against similarly sized slot receivers. Rivera liked Munnerlyn’s chances last week against the Jets’ Santonio Holmes, who is 5-11 and 192 pounds.

After Holmes insulted the Panthers’ secondary – calling it the “weakest link” on the defense – Munnerlyn helped hold Holmes to two catches for 14 yards. Holmes was the intended target on the Geno Smith pass in the fourth quarter that Munnerlyn intercepted and returned 41 yards for a touchdown.

It was Munnerlyn’s fifth career interception return for a touchdown, moving him past Mike Minter as the franchise leader. Munnerlyn has returned 71 percent (5 of 7) of his interceptions for touchdowns, the highest percentage in NFL history among players with five or more.

“I blocked for him for two years as a punt returner. So I know when he gets the ball, you’ve got to find somebody (to block),” defensive end Greg Hardy said. “He can make two (guys) miss.”

Munnerlyn said his punt-return instincts kick in when he comes down with an interception.

“I just know every time I get the ball I think about scoring,” he said.

Everything’s a competition

Munnerlyn gets plenty of short jokes, but he claims to be taller than running backs Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo Williams, both of whom are listed as 5-9. Munnerlyn had Tolbert stand next to him in the locker room last week, and it appeared Munnerlyn was a shade taller.

Tolbert made a crack about Munnerlyn’s receding hair line, but later praised Munnerlyn for how far he’s come as a late-round draft pick.

“He had to work for everything he’s gotten and everything he’s going to get. In my situation, nothing but respect for him,” said Tolbert, who went undrafted out of Coastal Carolina. “Someone that’s a seventh-round pick, which is basically an undrafted free agent, you don’t have a long life in this league. To be able to play – what, this is his fifth year? – much respect.”

Rivera feels the same way about Munnerlyn.

“In all honesty, he’s an underdog because everybody looks at his size and that’s a minus to a lot of people,” Rivera said. “But I see it as a plus because he knows what his limitations are so he works at being better.”

Rivera said the Panthers try to keep Munnerlyn out of potential matchup problems against bigger receivers, but have to be careful not to tip off their coverage in doing so.

“You can’t always sit there and say, ‘Well, we’re going to put him over here. We’re going to put him over there,’ ” Rivera said. “Next thing you know, you’ve shown your hand.”

So while Munnerlyn figures to line up against Saints receiver Lance Moore, who is 5-9, often on Sunday, there will be times he might end up covering Marques Colston. The 6-4 Colston caught nine passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting with the Panthers.

Thanks in part to his head coach, Munnerlyn indicated he’d be ready for the challenge.

“He holds me at a high level, a higher standard. And sometimes I really need that to be held at a high level, me being the type of player I am, just to bring out the best in me,” Munnerlyn said.

“And that’s all coach Rivera wants to do – bring out the best in me.”

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

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